A Sentimental Journey, Somewhat Lacking in Sentiment

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blog split pantsIt was the middle of July, and I was back in South Korea.

For the previous six months, China had held me like a (somewhat abusive) mother, kept me close to her heaving breast. But now I’d broken free from her, fled back to Daddy South Korea. That might sound goofy, but it’s how I viewed the two of them. My second life had begun inside Daddy South Korea; I’d formed inside his scrotum and was eventually shot out into Mother China, somehow penetrating her Great Wall, which, in this analogy, I suppose would represent a diaphragm. Yes, it was all an accident, just like when my actual parents conceived me one sunny afternoon in the 1970s.

It felt good, being back in Seoul. Sitting around a deserted restaurant, eating dongkas by myself, I realized that it had blog dongkasbeen an amazing five years since I’d first set foot in South Korea. That was back in 2009, when I worked at an English Academy for the summer, before I returned to the USA and completely blew my life up. I came to Korea that summer with a wife by my side and a house back in North Carolina. One week after returning, the summer about to end, I had neither.

Suddenly, while savoring my delicious dongkas, the significance of those last five years seemed enormous. Meaningful. I could feel the wicked
pointer finger of nostalgia poking at me – nostalgia, that most awful of emotions, more prevalent in Americans than in others, the desire to relive one’s past through pictures or objects or stories. Nostalgia is almost blog blow up dollpornographic in a way, masturbatory, both sometimes revolving around home movies or toys, substitutions for a real something. I knew it was happening yet I couldn’t stop it. I wanted so badly to go back to my first apartment in Seoul, just so I could look at its façade, as though it was a kind of ancient ruins, standing there as a symbol of an era that ended long ago.

blog nostalgia comicYes, I could picture everything. All the images I’d snapped in my head five years earlier. There was that big fountain by the subway station, the one where thin arcs of clean white water would shoot up from the ground as if by some miracle the concrete was spraying out champagne. Then there was the apartment building where I used to live, old and exhausted, my former place on the second floor, sitting on top of a pig meat restaurant. And finally there was the building where my wife – prior to ex status – used to live, an all-girls dormitory, the place in which she sat and decided she didn’t care for Korea (her feelings alone) and didn’t like our marriage much either (that one was mutual).

So I went back. I got on the subway and traveled to Sinjeongnegeori Station, walked out of exit number three and, stepping into the sun, I immediately knew exactly where I was. It was weird, sort of like seeing a movie for the second time, remembering most of it, filling in the details that hadn’t seemed important the first time around. I easily found the all-girls dormitory, the pig meat restaurant, and the fountain where I used to sit and chill after work. All the locations were close to each other geographically, exactly as they’d shared the same space in my memory.

Now, I’m not totally sure what I expected to feel. Awe? Wonder? Anxiety? As it turned out, I felt very little of anything. I looked at all the stuff and kind of shrugged. Said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” in my head. Really, it’s probably
the way I’d react if my guardian angel came and transported me anywhere in my past. Replacing George Bailey with me would significantly lessen the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I would go through my past vaguely interested, bored, and then, at the end, jump off the bridge.

 

To heck with Christmas.

To heck with Christmas.

Undistracted by emotion, I sat down by the big fountain, opened my journal, and wrote this. I’d gone back in time and realized that nothing had really changed, although I don’t mean that in a negative or cynical way. The locations were the same, the people seemed the same. I was still writing in journals with a black pen, still amusing myself with my own thoughts. I was still in Seoul, even after all that time had passed. But more than all that, and most importantly, I still felt all the hope that I’d felt sitting on the same bench half a decade earlier. The belief that I could make my life better, create this brilliant new start to things. I thought about the future, just as I had before, and again it seemed beautiful, filled with limitless possibility.

The past is not a pretty place to get stuck in. I’d taken a sentimental journey there only to find it lacked sentiment, and for that I couldn’t have been happier.

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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.