The Sheep Cafe: Cause Nothin’ Complements a Latte like Livestock

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As a fan of random, pointless things, I was drawn to Seoul’s “Thanks Nature Cafe.” With all these Starbucks everywhere, little independently owned establishments need a gimmick to survive, and the Thanks Nature Cafe has…well…a unique one. Mixing high-end coffee with a small herd, the cafe is home to not just one, but two (yes two!) sheep, who live in a pen right outside the front door. Why? Don’t ask questions like that. Just drink your coffee and behold the wonderful sheep decor the interior boasts.

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The sheep live in a small fenced off enclosure, down in the center area between the coffee shop and a few stores. There’s a little doghouse (sheephouse?) for them to go in when they feel they’re lacking privacy. In the summer, the weather gets too hot for them to handle and the sheep are taken away. I’m not sure if this hurts business, but one would guess it would, just as removing the animals living in other coffee shops likely diminishes their revenues as well.

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What more is there to say about the Sheep Cafe? Um, not a whole lot. I’m told that the place makes visiting Australians feel at home, and that the cafe owners frown upon shearing. Really, though, I’m happy places like this exist. As much as I love Starbucks, it hasn’t exactly helped in making life less boring. Take Starbucks and its copy-cat knocks-offs and add them to all the ubiquitous corner stores and supermarkets and fast food joints. Human consumption has gotten really dull, the art of sitting in a chair at a table and putting something in one’s face. At least by having the two awkward sheep outside, I felt like I was experiencing something different. Taking part in a special happening, including myself in a hip scene.

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I read on PBS.org that sheep can recognize each other and can also recognize human faces. In addition to making me want to write a really bad mystery story (picture this – police lineup of criminals, a sheep brought in to identify the murderer), knowing this makes me want to go back to the Sheep Cafe. I want to be recognized. I want the Starbucks girl to tell me apart from the other customers, but that never seems to happen. Maybe a couple ewes will take the time to notice. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

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8 Uncool Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (Cause They F**kin’ Suck!)

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blog drunk koreanKorea really is a great place. That said, all great places have uncool elements. Think about Oz for instance: awesome midgets, very colorful, flying monkeys. Those were all great things, but then there was the wicked witch, and she sucked. In essence, every place on earth has its own wicked witch. Korea is no exception. Here are 8 things from the Land of Milkis and Kimchi that I certainly will not miss:

blog cab driver1. Cab Drivers – Not as if cab drivers in other countries are the bees knees, but I particularly disliked the cabbies in Korea. They’re all old and grumpy, and if you’re with your friend and having a nice pleasant conversation in the backseat, the cabbie will pump the radio up really loud because he doesn’t dig English and is trying to tell you to shut up. Also, cabbies are so nice, they treat foreigners (when they’re desperate enough to stop and pick them up) to the lovely scenic route to whatever the destination is. On the meter, of course. Which makes for more conversation, and hence louder Korean traditional music.

blog cass2. Cass/Hite/Max – Korea has three staple beers, and they all taste like watered down versions of Coors Light. What’s that you say? Coors Light tastes like water to begin with? Exactly. Just imagine drinking Coors Light, urinating it out, then drinking the Coors Light-urine-toilet-water mixture. That is about what Korean beer tastes like. Perhaps that’s a bit of a gross analogy, but if it frightens anyone away from Cass, then it’s okay because it’s served a greater good.

blog breaking news3. Breaking News at Work – In Korea, any information at your job is always breaking news, delivered at the last possible minute. Have an extra class added? They will tell you this two minutes before it begins. When will winter and summer camps be held? Don’t bother asking, nobody knows until the answer is ‘tomorrow.’ Korean schools just really, really love surprises. Especially when they involve you getting extra work.

blog plastic4. Plastic Surgery – Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t get behind plastic surgery. It’s very common in Korea, where advertisements for it are ubiquitous. For every subway car in Seoul, there’s at  least one plastic surgery advert. And forgive me for liking ugly people too much, but I find the idea of plastic surgery icky and depressing. Yes, she looks better in the after picture than the before one. I don’t care. I don’t want to sleep with the post-op transsexual, and I don’t want to kiss any lady who runs the risk of transforming into Korean Joan Rivers.

You don't wanna read! You want rockin' abs!

You don’t wanna read! You want rockin’ abs!

5. Han’s Deli – I could rip on Han’s Deli because the food is inedible and it’s one of the worst restaurant chains in the universe (it makes the 7-11 hot dog kiosk look like fine dining). However, I choose to go a different route. I loathe Han’s Deli simply because it is not a deli, as its name would suggest. They serve spaghetti and pork cutlets. Where are the sandwiches? Where’s the pastrami and the mesquite smoked turkey breast? Nowhere. It would be like if I opened up a store called “Bill’s Book Store,” and I only sold Taebo DVDs. Please, somebody take Han on a trip to New York, so he can learn what a deli is.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

6. Ice – Currently, all of Seoul is covered in one thick sheet of ice. Korea seems to have no idea how to handle ice. There’s no salt, sand, or kitty litter being used to combat it’s slippery power. Instead, there are hundreds of girls in high heels falling. And if they aren’t gorgeous, men won’t help them up, but instead will give them a great shove, so they will slide in the direction of the nearest plastic surgery center.

blog bip7. Having an Alias – Yes, names can lead to cultural confusion. When I received my Alien Residence card back from immigration, I was a little concerned that I had been registered as “William Robert.” Robert is my middle name, but, as it would turn out, pretty much all Korean institutions would make the same mistake, believing it was my last name. Bank account – William Robert. At the doctor – I was again the singular Mr. Robert. Not Roberts, with an s, like Julia or Bip. Robert. It wasn’t a big deal; I took it as Korea’s revenge against the western world for thinking they all have ‘Kim’ for a first name.

blog gangnam8. Gangnam Style – I know, I know, it’s inescapable everywhere. Gangnam Style will go down in history as proof that North Korea waited to long to drop its nuke. Sure, it would’ve caused misery and devastation to many…but if it rid the world of that song and that ridiculous horse dance…just press the red button and make sure Psy isn’t in a bomb shelter.

Ah, Korea, I shall always love thee. If I could marry you, the whole country, I would. Without any doubt. I would be proud to have you on my arm, my one and only Kim Robert.

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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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Monday Night Snow Fall

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snow 2I’m meeting Y, my girlfriend, in the subway station at 6:45. It’ll be the first time I leave the apartment today. Y broke the door off the cabinet last night and I was supposed to fix it. I couldn’t. I figure I’ll say it’s because there’s a screw missing. Find that screw, and I’ll have the door back on no problemo. Two minutes, tops. Yeah, the screw is my scapegoat, and I’m thankful for it. I know that Y will see right through this, but I figure I’ll say it anyways. I must have some sort of excuse. It’s expected of me.

When she comes out of the subway station, I’m waiting for her. She looks lovely. Outside, Seoul has gone cold, winter jacket mean. Y’s face is reactive; she turns it away from the wind and scowls. I haven’t had my hair cut since September and we walk to a barber shop. There’s a spinning barber’s pole outside the place, pink and yellow, cartoon girls with big eyes going round and round. The lady inside sits me down and asks Y what she’s supposed to do to me. Y tells her something in Korean, relaxing in the seat next to me, and soon there’s hair falling from my head. I hate getting my hair cut, having to look at myself in the mirror, practically forced to, my heinous image inescapable; when it’s mercifully over, the lady asks me if it’s okay, and I, in turn, ask Y.

Afterwards, Y takes me to a restaurant where she orders us Canadian eel. We put the long, thin eels, dressed in red spices, onto a grill and cut them to shreds with scissors. The meat is chewy. Y’s ponytail has come undone; it’s losing its sense of order, a long strand of hair going down the side of her face. She’s got a yellow shirt on and a necklace with big white plastic pearls. I don’t think she’s ever looked more beautiful. We eat the eel with mint leaves and garlic cloves. I tell her she looks beautiful and she laughs.

Which, while not the intended response, is okay, since it emphasizes my point.

On the way back, it starts to snow. This is the first snow either of us has seen this year. Sure, it’s freezing cold and dark outside, but that’s all background noise. I feel so proud walking next to Y. I want to kiss her. It’s only a short walk home, and the snow falls softly down on her black hair.

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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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Off the Beaten Path: Mo Do Sculpture Park

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Off the coast of Incheon, South Korea, sits Mo Do (Mo Island), where artist Lee Il-Ho once lived.  There is very little information floating around about Lee; the “Visit Incheon” website calls him one of Korea’s most famous surrealist sculptors, yet at the same time, I couldn’t find much biographical information on him.  He has had exhibitions all over the world, but still seems to be a mystery.

To get from Seoul to Mo Do, one must veer far from the beaten path.  It’s rather exciting.  I found myself taking two subway lines, two different buses, a ferry boat, another bus, and then embarking on a 1 km walk in order to finally arrive at Sculpture Park, the beachfront area where Lee Il-Ho has made over 50 of his works open to the public.

Yes, the park is a little R-rated, but that doesn’t stop children from coming and having a good time.  If it’s naughty (and it is), it’s mischievous in a fun kind of way.  It’s also extremely democratic: not only can a person come to Sculpture Park and look at these amazing works, a person can also climb all over them.  Case in point: see me in the pictures below.

The fact that the sculptures are displayed on a beach made the experience of viewing them even more unusual.  Mo Island is the third of three small islands connected by bridges.  There are no ATMs on the island and very few people.  Sculpture Park didn’t appear in any of the Korea travel guides I bought, and the only reason I knew it even existed was because the park is featured heavily in the movie Shi Gan (“Time”) by filmmaker Kim Ki Duk, which I got off Netflix before coming to Korea.

 As I said, Sculpture Park is far off the beaten path.  And going off the beaten path is exciting.  However, one does want to get back onto the beaten path somewhat quickly after straying from it.  Leaving the island, I got very lost and confused and found myself stranded on a dock in the middle of nowhere.  There were no vehicles in sight and I felt like crying.  After waiting nearly an hour and a half, one bus finally came and got me.  Seeing it stop to pick me up, I felt like the happiest boy in the universe.

I think part of what makes a trip to Mo Do seem magical is the secret nature of the whole endeavor.  It feels like you’ve stumbled onto something nobody else knows about.  For about an hour, it was just me and these sculptures and the beach.  It almost seems like if I didn’t tell anyone about it, maybe the place, with its bizarre images and misty grey water, didn’t really exist at all.

What, Do You Eat Burgers in a Barn?

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Today is April 3rd, although by the looks of it, one would guess it’s sometime in late October.  The day is dark and grey, high winds making the rain come in at an angle as though the ground has been slanted.  The air is so cold it stings my hands; I’m just coming down off a really bad fever and as I stand at the streetlight, waiting to cross the road, holding a bag of groceries in one hand and an umbrella in the other, I curse out loud, like a crazy drunken hobo.  “Fuckin’ Korea!” I say.  “It’s April!  It’s not supposed to be like this, Korea!  What kind of forsaken land do I live in!”

Things have gotten to that point.  I have begun to realize that Korea is wearing me down.  I’m extremely irritable with everything.  Often times I find myself making huge generalizations about the Korean people, about things that are silly and stupid and obviously not generated by race or culture.  The other day one of my students refused to use a perfectly good pair of scissors because, quite simply, she wanted to use the other pair of scissors.  “These Koreans are driving me crazy,” I thought.  “They’re so fucking meticulous.  OCD.  Everything has to be done one particular way.  I can’t take it anymore!”

Why did I have this mini-breakdown?  Because a nine year old girl would only use the red scissors and not the blue ones.  To me, at the time, this spoke volumes about the people of South Korea.

Really, it’s like George Orwell’s “double think,” kind of.  I know that my thoughts are completely idiotic.  Obviously one little girl being stubborn is not indicative of an entire country.  I’m very aware that I’m being dumb and racist.  At the same time, I can’t help thinking it.  Everything that goes wrong has to be the fault of this place.  Why is it miserably cold on April 3rd?  Because it’s Korea.  Why is a tiny girl in pigtails screaming at me?  Because she’s Korean.  Duh.

I think partly being sick has made me lash out at the poor, innocent Korean people.  Last Saturday, I hit up Lotteria before meeting my girlfriend.  I was hungry and needed lunch.  The weather was much better on Saturday than it is today, but it still wasn’t really warm out.  I got my hamburger and sat down to eat it.  Two minutes after sitting down, I realized I was freezing.  I looked around.  People seemed happy, eating their food.  I noticed, though, that almost everyone had their coats on.  Taking another bite of my burger, a cold draft came across the back of my neck.  I turned my head to see that the front doors were propped open, as though somebody opened them to leave and then didn’t shut the doors behind himself/herself.

“Fuck man!” I said to myself, pissed.  “These Koreans always leave the damn door open.  They never shut the door.  What, do they live in a barn?!”

That’s a phrase I grew up with.  When somebody leaves the door open, you say, “What, do you live in a barn?”  I thought everyone said this.  A few months ago, I said it to Sis, who stared at me blankly.  “Do I live in a barn?  What the hell are you talking about?”

“It means, close the door, Sis.”

“What does that have to do with a barn?”

“I dunno.  People say that.  What, do you live in a barn?  Close the door.”

“I’ve never heard that in my life.”

“Trust me, it’s a common expression.”

“Do people who live in barns leave the door open a lot?”

“Yeah, it smells of manure.”

“Really?”

“I think so.  Plus the animals have to go in and out.”

“It sounds like you’re making this up.”

“No, seriously.  And if you go to a barn and you close the door, the person will say, ‘Open the door!  Jesus!  What, do you live in a house?!’”

Anyways, this is what I was thinking, staring at the open doors at Lotteria.  I was thinking that these people must eat burgers in a barn.  Five or six different groups of people came in, as the Lotteria was busy on Saturday, and not one of them closed the door behind them as they entered.

I was furious.  Capital F.  Furious.  I wish I was exaggerating.  “I’m fucking sick,” I ranted in my head, “and these idiots walk in here like there’s no door on the hinges.”  Then I got up, walked over to the front doors, and closed them myself.

Not five minutes later, the doors were open again.

“Damnit!” I cursed, storming out of there.  Soon later, I met up with my girlfriend and voiced my displeasure.  “They were probably very warm,” she said, “so they opened the door.”

“Here’s an idea,” I said, in full asshole mode, “if you’re warm, how about taking the fucking parka off.  Ever think of that, genius?  I know they’re attached to their stupid North Face coats, but guess what, homeboy?  You’re indoors.  Not climbing a fucking mountain.  Put the coat on the back of your chair and stop freezing the Westerner.”

My poor Korean girlfriend.  She’s the sweetest.  I couldn’t stay grumpy for long around her, especially since I was spewing hate towards her people and knew that was bad.  I let the door thing slide and we had a nice day together, although I kept coughing, wheezing, and blowing my nose the whole time.

For the first time in my life, I am a minority.  Maybe that’s what’s getting to me.  It’s not that I’m sunk by Korea, so much as I’m feeling different and alone.  That’s part of the expat experience, I suppose, and I should savor it.  I’m learning.  I just wish I could be a little warmer while doing so.

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How a Poplar Tree Further Divided North and South Korea

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Check Point #3 used to be called “The Loneliest Outpost in the World.”  It sat, unmanned, across from two North Korean outposts, smack dab in the middle of the Joint Security Area located at the intersection of the two countries.  Since the end of the Korean War, the 38th parallel had again become the demarcation for where one country ended and the other began; it was clear, without any gray area.  To use a metaphor, the division between North and South Korea was not at all like the separation of night and day, where there’s a long hazy middle, but instead more like the light in a room at night, how the switch can be flipped from light to dark, with no varying degrees between.

It was 1976 and the severance between the countries could not have been clearer.  The only exception was the Joint Security Area, where it was possible to build a North Korean outpost right next to a South Korean one.  Following the Korean War, it was decided that the JSA (Joint Security Area) would not, unlike everything else, have a strict line of demarcation for where the North should be and where the South should be.  Both sides were able to move around the JSA as they wished.  That said, there was an understanding, based on basic geography, on where the North and the South actually were.  But the lack of any official mark in the sand would lead to some interesting decisions, and ultimately to a strange and tragic event that would eventually change everything.

United Nations Command, though they had every right to, decided that no South Korean outposts would be constructed on the northern side of the JSA.  They would stay out.  It was a noble decision, one based mostly around respect, and one that the North did not follow along with.  The North decided that they would, conversely, construct outpost in the southern part of the JSA.  They made two large outposts surrounding South Korea’s Check Point #3.  This was, if nothing else, a very aggressive decision.  Whereas the Check Points in the North were not in harm’s way, CP #3 was now very much in the line of fire.  If conflict were to arise, CP #3 was surrounded by not just one, but two enemy outposts.  To the North, this was not aggression.  It was strategy.  There was no rule saying they couldn’t make their outposts there, on southern ground, and so they went ahead and did.

This got the UN Command thinking.  If violence was to erupt, the poor guard in CP #3 wouldn’t have a fighting chance.  They decided that all military personal would be removed from CP #3.  It would continue to be an active check point, but it would be empty.  Seeing as there was no one there, CP #3 would then be monitored from another post – CP #5.  In the winter, this was fine.  A problem, though, came about in the summer.

There was a large poplar tree growing in the line of vision between CP #5 and CP #3, obscuring the South’s ability to watch their post.  On August 18, 1976, UN Captain Arthur Bonifas led a group of South Korean soldiers, carrying axes, to trim the branches of the poplar tree.  They were met by a group of Northern Soldiers.  The North demanded that the South immediately stop pruning the branches off the tree.  In response, Capt. Bonifas turned his back.

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UNC Regulation 551-1 is a declaration form that any visitor to the DMZ (demilitarized zone – the border between North and South Korea) must sign.  I signed it, and so did my good friend TTD, right before we went into the JSA.  This is how the waiver begins:

“1. The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. ..Although being on the alert for unexpected condition, the United Nations Command, and the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.”

Yeah, I signed that.  In retrospect, a trip into the DMZ isn’t especially dangerous, although there are so many warnings, one starts to feel a bit tense.  Our tour guide rambled on about all the things we should avoid doing: “Never point at the soldiers.  They are highly alert.  If you point your finger, they might think it’s a gun and open fire.  Also, you have to leave all your bags and belongings on the bus, because if war breaks out while we’re in the JSA, bags will weigh us down as we run away.”

The gravity of the experience hits early.  One of the first stops is the Freedom Bridge, where injured soldiers were taken by train from Panmunjom into the South.  TTD and I walked a little ways down from the bridge.  There, we encountered a huge rusted metal sign that said, “Do Not Come Closer and Do Not Take Pictures.”  In the near distance was a fence with barbed wire at the top.  We could see a small outpost with a soldier inside.

Behind us, there was a strip mall and a Viking Ship amusement ride.  In front of us, there was nothing but land, lots of empty land covered in light brown grass.  To our left, there was a display featuring an old train car, riddled with bullets from its journey across the bridge.  Everything seemed to mark a war that had long passed, a moment in history, except for that sign and that soldier, and the thought of what would happen if we, filled with curiosity, stepped any closer to that barbed wire fence than what the sign allowed.

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Captain Bonifas ordered the soldiers to continue trimming the tree.  North Korean Senior Captain Pak Chul calmly took his watch off and put it in his pocket.  Moments later, he struck Capt. Bonifas in the neck with a karate chop.  After that, all hell broke loose.  The South Korean soldiers dropped their axes and ran; their opposition picked up the weapons and attacked.  Capt. Bonifas was killed and another UN officer – Lt. Mark Barrett – was later found badly injured in a depression covered by trees (the North Korean soldiers were taking turns, passing an ax and going down into the depression where Barrett was).  Lt. Barrett would later die on a helicopter being brought to Seoul.  The fight only lasted about a minute, but its ramifications are still felt strongly today.

Three days after the “Axe Murder Incident,” the UN carried out “Operation Paul Bunyan,” where the poplar tree was finally cut down.  The JSA was then divided, like the rest of the Koreas.  There are white markers that denote the exact line where the country is split.  In addition, a short stone monument marks the place where the poplar tree once stood, and an axe used in the incident is on display in the North Korean Peace Museum.

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There was one North Korean soldier.  I had to squint to see him.  Closer to us, five South Korean soldiers stood, their backs to us, facing the one guy off in the distance.  All soldiers at the JSA are required to wear sunglasses to keep them from “eye fighting” with the opposition.  We were taken down into the JSA and into the MAC Conference Room, where meetings are held by military people from both sides in order to keep the Armistice (which South Korea, to this day, has not signed).  The conference room is in a small blue building.  Half of it, the building, is in the North, while the other half of the building is in the South.  There is a table in the center of the building where the two sides sit to have discussions.  The table is also split, an invisible line running down it horizontally, marked by microphones.

For about two minutes, inside the building, I was able to walk into North Korea.  It felt the same as the other side, although I tried to tell myself that it didn’t.  It was significant that I was there.  Yeah, it was in a building and there were guards, standing still as statues, and Kim Jong Il was nowhere to be seen, but I was in North Korea none-the-less.  To think, only about thirty five years earlier, before the two sides got into an axe fight over a poplar tree, it wasn’t like this.  Back then, there was at least one place that wasn’t so heavily divided.  Going from one side of the room to the other, it didn’t feel separate to me, although I knew very clearly that it was.

Soon later we were taken to a gift shop, where TTD and I bought North Korean money and whisky.  Then it was back off to Seoul.  As our bus left the DMZ, we could see the two flag towers, quite far apart from one another, one waving the Tae Guk Gui and the other the North Korean flag.  The North Korean tower was much taller than the South’s.

“Their tower is fifty meters taller than ours,” our South Korean tour guide said.  “They are very proud of that.  But ours is wider.”

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(I would like to thank Mr. Bill Ferguson for his immense help in correcting the (many) factual errors I made when I first posted this blog.  Mr. Ferguson was a soldier in the JSA during this time and was a part of Operation Paul Bunyan.  He contacted me and provided amazing feedback and assistance.  A HUGE thank you goes to him!)

Separate But Fishing: Xenophobia at the Trout Festival

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There were Americans in the back of the bus, and they were loud.

“I’m gonna jump in the water and feel my dick get small!” one particular jack-ass told his female friend.  She laughed because, let’s face it, why wouldn’t she?  With witty banter like that, how can one be expected to refrain from melting in hysterics?  We were all headed to the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival – me, TTD, the man who wanted his penis to shrink, and a bunch of others.  While I found the guy to be crude, it was refreshing to stumble upon someone who was proud of shrinkage.  That’s rare these days.  Perhaps one day in the future, he’ll lead an anti-Viagra, pro-impotence campaign.

America had been on my mind a lot since the afternoon I spent with K-Swizzle.  She had flown into Korea from California to visit C-Batz (yes, I give most of my friends stupid nicknames like this…it’s a curse).  She was a really beautiful girl – part Filipina and part Mexican.  On our trip to the museum, she told me about how her parents first met in a dance club.  Her father spoke no English and her mother spoke no Spanish.  Still, in spite of that, they fell in love.  It was a wonderful idea – two strangers who couldn’t even speak the same language meeting and falling for each other.  Stories like that help me believe in ideas such as romance and notions such as love.  And they also help me believe in America.  Where else could two people like that meet and start a new life together?  Okay, maybe a lot of places, but California seemed like the best one.

Let’s go back to the bus, for a moment, before we continue talking about K-Swizzle and before we get to the racist Trout Festival.  The people in the back filled the bus with laughter and quotes from Anchorman.  One girl pointed at the shrinkage guy and said, “Can you believe he sent me a picture of his shit this morning?”  Everyone wanted more information, so the guy said, “Yeah, I took a killer shit this morning.  I had to take a picture of it and send it to her.”  The girl started laughing, looking at him with love in her eyes.

“Man,” I thought, “all these years I’ve had flirting all wrong.  I should go on OK Cupid ASAP and change my profile pic to a photo of a bowel movement.”

These were exactly the kind of people I left America to get away from.  For a moment, I thought I wouldn’t mind it if the bus crashed.  And it was a shame, really, because, after my day with K-Swizzle, I’d been thinking of coming back the States without feeling a sense of dread.

I liked talking to K-Swizzle.  It wasn’t like talking to the ex-pats here.  She had a job and a home and a reality to her life.  There was no vagueness to her.  The future was a picture she’d already developed.  Most of the people here in Korea have little concept of what they’ll be doing in a year.  They want to travel, and it’s fun talking about different countries.  But talking with K-Swizzle was like talking to an actual person.  It made me think that when I go back to the States, things won’t be all that bad.  There are benefits to settling down somewhere and being around people who are stable.  For example, I could stop feeling guilty that I still can’t read Korean.

It took three hours to get to the Trout Festival.  Once we got there, we were led by two Korean girls through the snow and into the festival itself.  People flew down an enormous slide in inner-tubes and drove ATV’s around on the ice.  There were snow carvings of a dragon and of Pororo.  Everything looked awesome.  We were with a group of about 40 others and we were brought to big tent located at the foot of a large, empty area where the river had frozen over.  To the left and to the right, the ice was packed with Korean people fishing for trout.

Our tour leader motioned to the patch of ice where nobody was.  “They’ve set this area up for foreigners,” she said.  “You guys can fish here.”

And we did.  TTD and I wandered out onto the ice and cast our lines down into the holes the festival folks had made.  The other foreigners did as well.  Some of the festival people walked around with video cameras, capturing the excitement of white people fishing.  The other ice fishing areas were jammed with folks, families and couples out fishing together.  By comparison, our foreign area looked pretty vacant.

“When you catch your fish,” we were told, “you can take it over to the tent and they’ll cook it.  Go to that tent, though, because that is the cooking area for foreigners.”

The whole thing sort of reminded me of that scene from The Help where the woman has to go pee in a separate bathroom, and then the white lady says, “Isn’t it nice to have a bathroom of your own?”  That seemed to be the Korean stance on things.  “Isn’t it nice we set up an area for you to fish and have your meal cooked?  An area all to yourselves?”

TTD and I eventually drifted away from the pack.  We saw a large crowd gathered around a big pool and we went over to check it out.

“It’s bare-handed fishing,” someone said.  “You can pay ten bucks and they give you a t-shirt and shorts, and then you can jump in the pool and catch a fish with your hands.”

Perhaps I’m not that adventurous.  When it comes to seafood, the craziest I get is ordering the 3 piece meal at Captain D’s.  We decided to wait and see what the big deal was.  Rows of Koreans stood around the lip of the pool.  We could see the group of bare-handed-fishers ready to come out.  A Korean man shouted into a microphone and out they came in their t-shirts and shorts, running barefoot through the snow.  And that’s when I noticed something.

They were all foreign.  Every single one.  It was like the “watch the foreigners do something stupid” show.  Sure enough, down into the water they went, painful expressions on their faces, grabbing fishes and sticking them down their shirts.  The audience seemed mildly amused.

Looking all around me, I reflected on things.  I felt the Koreans were looking down on us, and yet that’s exactly how I’d looked at the people in the back of the bus.  What did that mean, then?  It meant that either I had to stop being a snob, or I had to stop feeling offended by the Koreans’ snobbery.

I looked out at the people in the fish pool, shaking and shivering.

“Babo Waygookins,” I thought, with a hint of pride.

*

Flat Stanley, Love Locks, and the City at Night

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Flat Stanley was wedged in a book.  I’d never heard of Flat Stanley until somebody mailed him to TTD a few weeks ago.  “You take him places,” she said, “and you gotta take a picture of him.  Then you mail Flat Stanley to someone else, so he goes around the world.”  It’s a cute idea, sort of like the garden gnome in the movie Amelie.  If you’ve never seen Flat Stanley, he is a white man in a dress shirt and tie.  He is called “flat” because he’s a paper cut-out.  Maybe when I have some free time I’ll invent “3 Dimensional Sven,” an origami Norwegian boy in clogs.  That sounds like a reasonable alternative to Stanley.  To me, at least.  Although he wouldn’t fit in a book.

“You know what might be fun?” I told TTD.  “If we go to some touristy place and pretend we’re tourists.  We can say we’re only here for a week.  Who knows?  We might meet some interesting people.”

TTD thought that idea sucked, but she did have to take a picture of Flat Stanley, and so on Saturday we went to Korea’s most popular tourist destination, Namsan Tower.  We’ve been in Korea well over a year but, for unclear reasons (i.e. hangovers), we’d never made our way to the Tower.  Flat Stanley was a good excuse.

Sis had been to the Tower before.  In fact, she has a lock there.  So it was TTD, Sis and I, headed up a mountain in a cable car, at 5 in the evening, with three goals: take a picture of Flat Stanley, find Sis’ lock, and see the city all lit up at night.

“Wow!” I said loudly so others could hear.  “This is an amazing vacation.  I’m so happy we’ll be in Korea all week.  It’s really fun to be a tourist here!”

To my disappointment, nobody paid me any mind.  I guess the only people who come off as being tourists are actual tourists.  Shucks.

Namsan Tower is well-known for its locks, just as Korea is known for being a ‘couples society.’  Most places here are designed for couples (for instance, 90% of restaurants don’t even have single servings, they price and serve dishes for two people) and there are about thirty holidays for couples (Pepero Day, for example, where couples give each other cheap chocolate sticks).  There are messages about love written all over the walls of coffee shops and PC cafes.  It’s really disgusting and makes being single even more depressing.  Not only am I lonely, I can’t order food.

The locks at Namsan Tower tie into this entire love/couple mentality.  When two are in love (cue Prince song), they buy a lock, write their names on it, and put it on the deck at Namsan Tower, where it will stay forever, symbolizing their eternal ardor.  Or, more likely, symbolizing nothing but getting the guy some booty that night.  Anyways, Sis and her boyfriend have a lock up there, somewhere among literally thousands of locks.  Some of the locks are brand new  (yay! young people in love!) while others are old and rusted and look like they’ve been there for centuries  (yay! old people in love!) (eww).  I looked out at the vast array of locks and felt a little jealous.

“I’ll get a lock and put one up here in anticipation,” I told Sis.  “I can get a good spot now.  My future girlfriend and I can come write our names and draw a heart later.”

“That might be creepy, bro,” Sis said.  “Especially if the lock is old and rusted by the time you find somebody.”

Sis looked around but couldn’t find her lock.  I’d heard before that many couples lose track of their locks.  “Are you sad because you can’t find it?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.  “I don’t care.”

This is probably why I’m single.  My neurotic ass would want to go see the lock every other day.  I’d be calling up my girlfriend, “Hey, how about this weekend, we do dinner and the lock.”  Then in the upcoming weeks: “Hey, how about a movie and the lock.”  “Say, I could go for coffee and the lock, you?”  “This weekend I want to do something special…I’m gonna take you on a beautiful, romantic getaway…after we see the lock.”

TTD didn’t help our four-minute search for the lock because she was too busy taking pictures of Flat Stanley.  An hour or so had passed since we took the cable car up, and the sun had gone down.  I went out on the (free) observation deck (as opposed to the one up the Tower, which costs money and was subsequently ignored) and looked out at Seoul.

It was maybe the most breathtaking thing I’d ever seen.  Nature is okay, but to me nothing compares to a great city at night.  And it’s even better when you’re looking out at a city you live in.  I’ve seen Niagara Falls in Canada, the Christ statue in Brazil, Halong Bay in Vietnam, and the Lindsay Lohan Playboy spread.  Nothing came close to making me feel like my beautiful city did.

Seoul.  The place where I live.  I felt alive and wonderful.  Really and truly happy.

Flat Stanley is a lucky guy.  He gets to come to Seoul and then head off on another adventure.  I feel fortunate too.  I’ve come a long way to get to here, and I can stay a bit.  Flat Stanley is a tourist, and, lucky me, I’m just pretending.

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