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.

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Some Random Thoughts on Dating and Writing

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Back in 1995, when I was at the peak of my failures with the opposite sex, scoring a date was about as easy as getting accepted into college (ie, not easy). Luck had nothing to do with it – it was all about finding someone who was willing to look past your grades and/or pimples and give you a chance. Getting a date, like applying to uni, involved a shitload of hard work. Just meeting the girl in the first place, having the luck or courage to exchange names, was a trial – after that, I would have to create a good impression, get the phone number, successfully call the girl, and then, finally, trick her into agreeing to meet me someplace. Usually a movie, or dinner, or something. And let’s not forget, this was before the days of cellphones and Caller ID, so procuring the phone number was harder, and calling meant you had to figure out the right time to do it, greet the parent, and then actually have a conversation with the person. Talk about stressful – no wonder I settled for the companionship of my pet dog and the sexual fulfillment promised by late night Cinemax.

But then two things came along that totally revolutionized dating – Texting and Starbucks.

Yes, that’s correct: Texting and Starbucks. Suddenly, getting a girl’s phone number became easy. The number exchange involved no commitment; there was no looming conversations, no fathers to get through, and the ability to screen calls allowed girls the freedom to pass out their numbers like they were handing out party invitations. Nearly anyone could get an invite; it didn’t mean a whole lot. The other big dating revolution came in the form of Starbucks. No longer did the male have to arrange such a formal occasion, meeting for a meal or a long movie, something that had an unavoidable date vibe to it. Nope, now the two people could go and hang out, informally, grab a cup of coffee and get to know one another. Making an ulcer-inducing phone call that culminated in a date request faded out, in favor of sending a cute text with the suggestion of getting a cup of coffee sometime. Whenever is good. What you doing Wednesday? It was that simple. People now had the freedom to make commitments without making commitments, and everyone was happier, with the exception of the people that run Cinemax, because their ratings dropped.

Writing, I believe, has followed much the same arc. A mere 20 years ago, I was typing up stories and putting them in big envelopes, mailing them out to magazines via snail mail with a SASE inside. I’d typically send out two or three stories a year, and I always got rejected, which sucked royally since just sending the story out was such a production. The other strange thing was trying to find magazines – I had a big book called “The Writer’s Market” that spoke of literary mags I had never heard of or seen before. Sending out my work was odd because it felt like I was submitting to some phantom venue with an unknown phantom audience of an indefinable number.

But then, just as texting and Starbucks changed dating, two things would come along that changed writing: Blogging and Kindle.

Really, I should say ‘self-publishing’ instead of Kindle – I was trying too hard to stick with the –ing verb/proper noun setup. When I learned that I could start my own blog (and for free too!), suddenly the stress was gone. I didn’t have to worry about mailing something out, getting a rejection letter back in an envelope I paid for. I could write an essay, a story, whatever I wanted, and put it up on the Internet without worrying. It was great! And hot damn! – thanks to places like Kindle and Smashwords, I could even write a whole novel one day and publish it myself. Formality had left the building, the old ways gone, replaced by the writing equivalent of hanging out, having fun, and hooking up.

The reason I’m blabbing on about this is because I’ve been spending tons of time lately writing what will eventually be my first novel. In my life, I have never worked on anything harder than I’ve worked on this, and I’m not even remotely close to finishing. Focusing on the novel has lead to a dramatic fall-off in blogging, a social life that lacks many of the social elements, and a constant sense of guilt anytime I spend a few hours watching TV and not ironing out Chapter 9 for the 127th time.

And yet, as frustrating as writing the novel has been, I kind of love doing it. The sense of ambition and, yes, satisfaction too, is unlike what I experience writing my blog. Don’t get me wrong – over the last two years, I’ve LOVED writing this blog, and have been hella lucky that people have read it. That said, like scoring a coffee date, there’s been the feeling that the blog can’t be the be-all-end-all – that it should be a step, something that leads to something else. Hopefully that’s the novel…although God knows when I’ll finish the thing. I completed the first draft in January (weighing in at a ridiculously bloated 125,000 words) and am currently in the process of basically writing everything all over again. It’s challenging and thrilling and I’m not sure what it will lead to, if anything – a lot like beginning a new relationship with someone.

If there’s any points to be made here, I guess, first of all, I want to thank texting and Starbucks, and blogging and self-publishing, for filling my life with hope and possibility where none existed before. And the second point, I further guess, is that everyone should sit down and push themselves to do something that takes more work than texting and blogging, because even though those things are great, there’s a different level of pleasure that comes with pushing oneself into areas less certain.

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Dig That Spider Coming Out of a Cup! – A WordPress Blog Stat Mystery

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spider oneThere was a time, so many months ago, when I found myself obsessed with my blog stats. I know – it’s a shameful thing to admit. Now, when I say ‘obsessed,’ I really mean it. This was General MacArthur style obsession, Captain Ahab, Napoleon. I was obsessed the way great men become obsessed. The opposite, of course, would be how teenage girls have watered down the meaning of the word. “Oh my God, I used to be, like, totally obsessed with ‘N Sync!” And by that, the girl means she had the No Strings Attached CD and a poster of Lance Bass on the wall, which was taken down before he even came out of the closet.

That’s a different kind of obsession, and mine was worse, although maybe not as troubling. I’d keep my stats page up on the screen at all times, refreshing it every 30-40 seconds. I would also do dippy things in an attempt to detect or change trends, like trying to publish posts at different times of the day to see if the hits would go up (they don’t). In time, I mellowed out. Sure, I’ll check my stats once or twice a day, but it isn’t something I think about a lot. My obsession faded away, and I could once again turn my attention to more important things on the Internet, like Facebook and amateur porn.

spider twoAll that is to set up the odd thing that happened two weeks ago, noon on a Tuesday, when I very nonchalantly pulled up my blog stats. I usually have around the same number every day, and when my hit total came up for that particular day, I jumped back, startled. Okay, I didn’t really jump back, that was exaggeration for effect, but you get the idea. I’m not that easily rattled. I was really surprised, though, to see that my blog had already gotten over 1,400 hits.

“Dang, that’s pretty dope,” I thought. “How’d that happen?”

There had to be an explanation. I mean, let’s face it, my posts aren’t that good. I realized that most of these hits had come from the Google search. In addition, a vast majority of them – 1,251 to be exact – were for one single phrase.

Spider coming out of cup.

“What the hell?” I said to my girlfriend. “Spider coming out of a cup? I never wrote about anything like that! That was never even a tag.” How was it possible? As a rational human being, I knew that 1,251 different people couldn’t have Google searched “spider coming out of cup” and ended up at my blog. I thought about it, and then I realized why my original stat obsession had faded away in the first place.

spider threeI like my stats, and when I have good days, I like to think it’s because I wrote something worthwhile and, thus, I should feel good about myself. But the truth probably has much more to do with chance. How many of those hits are people who actually take the time to read a post? How many are accidental? How many are people who click on a link, stay for a second, and split? To go further, how many of my blog hits are even living human beings?

There was no way one person, or any amount of people, could have been responsible for the ‘spider coming out of cup’ explosion. The only thing that made sense to me was that some type of automated computer program somehow got stuck in a loop, and that’s how it happened. That’s my theory. In my all-time stats, ‘spider coming out of cup’ currently ranks as the 4th highest searched Google term, and the number hasn’t gone up by one single hit since I checked my blog at noon that one day. If you’re curious, here is the whole top five:

1. Sex

2. 90210

3. Gunther Von Hagens

4. Spider coming out of cup

5. Namsan Tower

Shit, how random! What a bizarre group of things, eh? I didn’t even write about number four at all, and apart from a few jokes (see porn gag earlier in post), I haven’t really written about sex, either. How do we, bloggers, really know who is out there and why they’re reading us? The Internet is one big, weird place, isn’t it?

spider fourThen again, I could have it all wrong. Maybe somewhere, sitting in a basement, there’s a guy who has spent the last two years meticulously searching out information regarding spiders coming out of cups. It could be spurred on by some sort of awful childhood trauma. No blog has been left unexplored. From morning until night, he keeps looking. Spiders. Cups. It never ends.

Now that, my friends, is obsession.

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45 Pages of Sex and Counting (The Disturbing World of Search Engine Terms)

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This past week, I noticed a little spike in my blog hit numbers. At first I was happy – who doesn’t like seeing their hit totals go up? With further research, though, my enthusiasm dwindled. All I had to do was look at my Google Search Engine Terms, and my nice hit bump was explained.

426 of my total views this week came from people who Googled the word “Sex.” Yes, sex. Nothing more specific than that. I’m not sure if they were looking for advice, porno, prostitutes, sex offender registries, or information about the saxophone and misspelled it. Whatever it was, they Googled plain old  “Sex” and somehow that led them to my blog.

“So,” my girlfriend asked me, “you’ve been writing a lot about sex?”

No, I don’t think I have. Apart from a post about music lyrics and maybe a few jokes, I don’t think I’ve written about sex at all. Then we got to wondering how many Google pages one would have to go through, having searched the word ‘Sex,’ before he or she (likely he) would end up on my blog. We decided to check it out. We Googled “Sex” and scrolled through page after page. 45 pages later my blog still hadn’t come up, and we were bored by that point and quit.

How many pages of Sex are these people going through? What kind of time do they have? Why don’t they refine their searches? I would think that if someone is still reading after 45 pages of sex, that person is a serious danger to society. Now I like sex as much as the next guy (unless the next guy is David Duchovny), and there’s no way I could read 45 Google pages of it and still want to keep going. That would be sex overdose. Even in my teen years, I tried to limit my Internet sex searches, as I didn’t want to spend too much time erasing my history.

After that, I decided to see what other Search Engine Terms had brought people to my blog. The results were disturbing, but in an enjoyable way, kind of like hearing Sean Hannity talk. Since I’m such a nice guy, I thought I’d share some of my favorite – and most horrifying – Search Engine Terms from the last week.

I want a foot licker” – What, is my blog a genie bottle? Your wishes aren’t getting fulfilled here, Dr. Scholl’s, and please don’t try to rub me.

Ketchup is naughty” – I feel whoever thinks this is projecting. Is ketchup really naughty, or do you just want it to be naughty?

XXX peanut comics” – Disgusting. Maybe I could understand Blondie or Hagar the Horrible.

Asses Sculptures” – Sadly, I do have this on my blog. Seek and ye shall find, Asses-Art-Lover!

Chinese girl with white penis” – Hmm, is it a Chinese girl having sex with a white man that you want? Or is it a tranny, or are you looking for a Chinese girl who happens to have a white penis that she keeps in her cupboard or under her bed or something? The possibilities are endless.

Gay dog gives man blowjob” – Does the dog really have to be gay? If you were to stumble upon, say, a female dog or even a straight dog doing this, would you hit the back button and continue searching? Plus, just out of curiosity, does the man have to be gay as well as a the dog? I like that you seek consent in your animal porn, you sick bastard.

Street fight of little elf people” – Actually, that does sound entertaining. And I think it’s a little racist that my blog on Korean street fighting came up.

Femstache fetish” – Well, at least I learned a new term. Maybe you should get together and hang out with the guy who wants a Chinese girl with a penis.

I think I have more than one nipple” – Just guessing, but I think you do too.

In a way, I’m glad that I’m getting an assortment of eccentric people visiting my blog, although I’m sure they left disappointed. In closing, I’m leaving a link for future Search Engine Term friends. I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, and you might also find it beneficial to click here. Peace!

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The Myth of Freshly Presyphus – A Big Thanks

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It was 6:30 Saturday morning when I finally staggered home.  I had spent the night drinking with my new friend Dom in Hongdae; he had these weird cigarettes that were supposed to change from regular to menthol if you flicked the filter properly.  I kept trying to get them to change but I couldn’t.  I didn’t have the touch.  And since I couldn’t do it, that meant that the only way I could get a similar effect would be if I smoked two cigarettes at the same time, a regular and a menthol, and I alternated drags.

“How stupid,” I thought.  At least I’d gotten a girl’s number.  I figured it wouldn’t amount to anything, but it was good that I’d tried to talk to one (one = a girl).  Exhaustion was setting in.  “I’ll just check my blog stats and go to bed,” I thought.  I logged on the ol’ blog and saw I that I’d gotten a lot of hits.

“I’ll be damned,” I said to myself.  There on the WordPress front page was my post about the ear hoodie.  Beneath the picture of the dude with headphones around his neck was a little box that said, “Follow Fashion.”

Follow Fashion?  I got Freshly Pressed in the category of…fashion?  That made no sense.  I have no right to be commenting on fashion; I can’t even match socks.  I sat back on my bed and just laughed.

It was a great morning.

I had never even read a blog when I started this one.  As I said in a past post, I started my blog for the sole reason of trying to get a girl’s attention.  My plan failed, but I spent the time making it, and it was kind of fun, and my friends were really encouraging, so I figured I’d keep going.  About a month after my first post, a really dumb little story about how there was a lizard in my motel room in Thailand got Freshly Pressed.

“Oh, this is neat,” I told myself.  I was happy.  “This must be something WordPress does when someone starts a new blog.”  There were a bunch of comments, and I read through them.  A lot of them made me laugh.  I responded to maybe five or six, then wrote a blanket “Hey, thanks for the comments” statement.  “Hmm,” I thought, “I wonder how often WordPress does this?”

Well, not very often I would eventually learn.  I would also learn that’s it pretty bad blog etiquette to get comments and not respond to any of them.  A few people stuck with my blog and commented on some of the new posts.  Did I respond to those comments?  Nope.  Did I ever think to, get this, take the time to go on their blogs?  Not for a second.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked that they were reading my entries and making comments – it just didn’t occur to me that they had blogs and I should check them out.  A few months later, the comments stopped completely.  In the month of June, I got a whopping total of 475 hits.  For the month.  I still didn’t know anything about having a blog, but that didn’t seem too good.

I don’t know why, really, but eventually I really started getting into the whole blog thing.  Big time.  Like a brave soul, I ventured off my own blog and began reading others.  I started commenting on them.  Sometimes, the people would comment back.  I also wrote more.  A lot more.  I learned about blog etiquette.  I made changes to my page so it looked better and I made a blog roll.  And as I did this, a little bit of embarrassment crept in:

“Oh my God…” it finally dawned on me.  “I got like 200 comments on my lizard post and didn’t respond to ANY of them.  I didn’t go on anyone else’s blog…I was a complete self-absorbed bloghole!”

At times, I would feel bitter towards WordPress: “It was too soon!  I didn’t understand what to do!  I was like a baseball player who gets called up before he’s ready!  I wasn’t ready!”

I vowed that if I was ever Freshly Pressed again, I would respond to every single comment.  And not just with a “Thanks for stopping by : ).”  No, I would leave a good, thoughtful response.

I especially hoped that my responses would somehow revolve around fashion.

So anyways, my point is that I was really determined to respond to every comment on the “ear hoodie” blog.  I tried my best.  I spent hours replying to them.  My entire weekend went to replying to comments, and still there were a ton that I hadn’t replied to.  They just kept coming and coming.  I felt my anxiety rising.  It wasn’t going how I planned it would.  I went on a few people’s blogs but not everyone’s.  After awhile I conceded.  It wasn’t possible.

Really, it’s tremendous fun getting Freshly Pressed.  I felt like Sissyphus (who is a far more intelligent reference than Persephone), trying to roll the big rock up the hill over and over.  Every time I responded to a comment and went on someone’s blog, another comment popped up in its place.  Except Sissyphus was miserable, and I thought it was pretty groovy.

All that is to say – in my longwinded fashion – thanks to everyone who checked out my blog and decided to stick around.  If I haven’t gotten on your blog and read through, I entirely intend to, just haven’t had time (due in part to writing overlong blog entries like this one).  But I really am incredibly grateful – thanks a ton.  : )

  • Sidenote #1: The breaks in this post were marked with former Lakers superstar Vlade Divac to spruce things up a bit.
  • Sidenote #2: I never got anywhere with the girl who gave me her number.
  • Sidenote #3: Over the past few days, I’ve gotten two followers whose names are so awesome I have to share them – Hooker B Washington and Chicks with Ticks.  Brilliant!

The Versatile Blogger Post – Rules Not Fully Followed

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Last December, I had a big stupid crush on a girl.  I wouldn’t want to trample on her privacy, so instead of saying her real name, let’s just called her “Goofy Face.”  That seems like a nice nickname, one that protects her integrity and doesn’t come off as bitter or anything.  One night, Goofy Face and I didn’t have anything to do, so she asked me to show her my writing journals.  I did, and after reading my rambling she told me that I should start a blog.  That seemed like a silly idea, as I had never even seen a blog before and didn’t know anything about it.  Anyways, a few days later Goofy Face dumped me like a full ashtray.  In a move of sheer desperation, I thought that if I actually started a blog – as she suggested – maybe she would read it and want to talk again.

It was a pitiful, despicable move.  And it didn’t work.  But now, about a year later, writing my little blog is one of my favorite hobbies.  In the past few months, I’ve really gotten into the whole blogging thing and have been having a lot of fun reading other peoples’ blogs as well.  There are a ton of really talented, funny, and unique voices out here on WordPress.  I’d gotten this Versatile Blogger thing once before and ignored it like a big jerkstore; today I got it again and this time I want to use it as an opportunity to acknowledge some of the blogs that have entertained me so much.

Now, there are rules that come with this Versatile Blogger Award.  I’m supposed to say seven unknown facts about myself, give shout outs to 15 blogs, and then inform those bloggers, who are supposed to name 15 bloggers, etc.  Instead, I’m just going to give shout outs to the blogs I really like…the seven surprise things will have to wait, and we’ll see if I follow through on the informing part.  Actually, maybe we can pull seven things from that opening paragraph:

  1. I’m straight (do I seem a little hung up on that?  homophobic!)
  2. I liked a girl called Goofy Face
  3. Drawing a conclusion from #2, I have bad taste in women.
  4. I didn’t know what a blog was until December
  5. Expanding on #4, I live under a rock
  6. I didn’t just like a girl called Goofy Face, I was dumped by her as well
  7. I’m an idiot, because I still know Goofy Face and this post is going to get me in a lot of trouble (I’m not kidding…this framing device was bad fucking idea…oh well!)

That was fun!  But here’s the important part…below are some blogs I really enjoy reading:

The Understander – This guy found me, and I’m happy about that because his blog is HILARIOUS.

A Girls Attempt – I like this one.  I feel it gives me insights into the female perspective.

Munteng – Cool little blog with interesting ideas.

Stupid Ugly Foreigner – All about living and teaching in South Korea.  Great writing.

On Hyperborea: Ideas From the North – Well thought out essays on various topics.

Renxkyoko’s Space – Had to put it.  It’s a fave.

The Pink Underbelly – Very good blog written by an amazing woman.

The Deep Friar – Funny.  I like it.

An American in North Korea – Well done and interesting subject matter.

I’m On the Bandwagon – Great premise.  Really funny.

That’s not 15…it’s 10.  But I’m happy with that list.  Let’s not bloat it.

I received my Versatile Blogger message from The Rhyming Med Student.  Check him out.  One last shout out to The Wuc, who nominated me before.

Happy blogging, everyone!  Now, it’s Friday night and I need to go drink some cheap Korean beer.  : )

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The Children at the Bo De Pagoda

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Toni had come to Vietnam as a volunteer.  Young, in her early 20s, with blue eyes and blonde hair, she would be spending two months away from England, away from her home and her boyfriend, and instead living in a backpackers’ hostel in Hanoi.  On weekdays she would take a bus from the hostel to the Bo De Pagoda, where she volunteered.  There was a small orphanage run by the Pagoda, and Toni had committed her next two months working there, helping out with the children.  The bus she took in the morning had no number; sometimes it wouldn’t even come to a full stop, forcing her to jog next to it for a moment before leaping on.

I met Toni during a canoeing trip through the rice paddies and caves in Tam Coc.  I asked her how her experience at the orphanage had been so far.

“It’s hard,” she said, quickly.  “Very hard.  I knew it would be bad…but it’s been more difficult than I thought.  These kids…it’s really pretty heartbreaking.”

After returning from Tam Coc to Hanoi, my friend Perkins and I had a short discussion.  I told him that I’d like to take a day and visit the orphanage; I was curious to see it.  Perkins, to my surprise, was also interested, and so we found Toni at her hostel and made plans to go.  Two days later we took a cab up to the Bo De Pagoda.  We walked down a path and immediately could hear the monks chanting.  It was a gloomy, rainy day.  Down the path we found a large open room, used for worship, where about forty monks bowed and chanted while incense burned.  Food was set about on large red glass plates.

As the monks went through their ceremony, the rain got heavier.  “Come on, man,” Perkins said, “let’s find the orphanage.”  Every now and then we would pass a small room with an older Vietnamese person sitting in it.  These people were clearly not monks – perhaps they had no homes and lived at the Pagoda.  We tried our best to ask for directions.  “Orphanage?  Children?”  They shook their heads.  In the background, I could still hear the monks chanting.

Perkins and I started heading back up the path when we heard Toni.  “Leaving so soon, are you?” she shouted to us.  It was a relief to see her.  She held a child in her arms and brought us back into the orphanage.  “You can go into the rooms,” she told us.  “Go wherever you like.  The children love visitors.  Across the way there’s the home for the teenage boys…I’m sure they’d like to meet you.  Upstairs there’s a room for all pregnant girls…it might be better to stay away from that one.”

In the center of the orphanage were a series of large wooden tables.  Elderly people laid on them, their eyes closed.  Flies swarmed about and the children ran freely around.  I apologized to Toni for not bringing anything – we had told her we were going to bring toys for the children but then never got around to actually buying any.  She was in good spirits and didn’t think it mattered.  Toni introduced us to an older British woman who was more or less in charge and then to the other volunteers.  There were no actual workers at the orphanage.  Only volunteers who had found it on the Internet.

The older British woman sat on one of the tables with a very young child.  The child was on his back and she took his arms and legs between her fingers and moved them around.  “This is his exercise,” she said.  “He has no muscle strength.  Can’t lift his arms or his head, even.  We aren’t sure why.”  The boy was brought to the orphanage like that.  There was no hospital to take him to apparently, no doctor to check him out.

The rooms at the orphanage were small and pretty much packed with kids.  The little boys and girls crawled around on beds with no mattresses, just wooden frames.  They waved and giggled when we came in.  Perkins and I would spend a few minutes in each room, saying hello and playing with the kids.  Upstairs, there was one boy who seemed especially excited to see us.  A young woman sat in a chair across from him.  While I waved at him, she pointed to him and then to her head, trying to tell us that there was something a little off with him.  I noticed that there was a torn bed sheet around his ankle, tying him to the bedpost.  I looked at the knot and wondered if he ever tried untying it with his little hands.

Later we went across to see the adolescent boys.  They lived in one room and spoke English well.  Toni had told us that the children all got English lessons since the majority of the volunteers spoke it.  We kicked around a soccer ball with the boys and they smoked cigarettes and asked us questions.  The day went on and we were back into the main part of the orphanage, where we were each given a child to hold.  Mine was hyperactive and I couldn’t get him to stay still or to stop crying.  He seemed to frantically want to get away from me.  Yielding to his desires, I placed him on the ground, where he grew immediately happier.

Five minutes later, he was gone.

I found Toni in an effort to report to her that I had lost my child.  “Don’t worry,” she said.  “His grandmother lives here.  He probably went to her.  His mother is mentally ill and couldn’t take care of him or his brothers.  The grandmother took the children and now they all live here.”

That made me feel slightly better, although I was still paranoid that I had aided in the child’s escape.  Toni continued.  Her voice got a slightly lower and more serious.

“You know,” she said, “when I first started here, eleven kids disappeared one day.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “Did you find them?”

“No,” she said, speaking plainly.  “Think about it.  There’s no security.  Anyone can just walk right in.  Eleven kids.  Gone.  There’s no way to know what happened to them.”

She looked across to the Pagoda itself.  “They’re supposed to be funding us,” she said, speaking of the monks.  “They don’t.  All the money goes into the Temple.  The orphanage gets nothing.”

It would be easy to say that the Bo De Pagoda was a miserable and depressing place, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  From my vantage point, or Toni’s, or Perkins’, it was a desperate and impoverished place where the children lived in heartbreakingly poor conditions.  That’s not what I saw in the children themselves, though.  To be cared for is maybe the most important thing in the world, and though it wasn’t ideal, the orphanage did its best to care for those children.  The volunteers and the visitors who spend time with the kids, and the homeless and sickly adults who live there and do what they can to help are what these kids have.  It might not seem like much, but it is.

Right before we left, I noticed a little girl with a yellow balloon.  She was happy, blowing the balloon up and then letting the air back out again.  The rain had picked up, and I watched the little girl inflate the balloon just a bit and then walk straight out from under the roof that was keeping us dry.  She stood out in the rain and opened the mouth of the balloon, releasing the air and trading it for raindrops.  The yellow balloon filled nicely, and she came back skipping.  She tied the end of it and looked at the rain that she’d collected, how it appeared dark inside, like a shadow made of water.  She took the balloon and titled it back and forth, forth and back, smiling over the sound it made.  Her hair and her clothes were all wet, and she ran off with that yellow balloon in her hands, excited to show the other children what she had made.

*

A Coin Collection Is Nothing But Spare Change Treated Better

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On the last day of my trip to Hong Kong, I found what I thought would be the perfect gift for Sandy, the girl I was spending time with back in Korea.  Somewhere by the Big Buddha statue on Lantau Island, I was able to locate a (cheap) set of coins that featured the Chinese Zodiac.  I really wanted to bring something back for Sandy, since we had been getting close.  The coins were perfect.  I remembered a conversation we had the first time I went over to her apartment.

“Wow,” I said, “you’ve got a lot of coins.”

“Yeah,” she told me, as we looked at the big assortment of metal currency sitting in a glass jar by her bed.  “It’s kind of my collection.  Here, my brother donated a loonie and a toonie – let me show you what they look like.”

And she did.  Or at least I think she did.  I couldn’t remember very well, but it didn’t matter.  A loonie and a toonie couldn’t compete with an authentic set of Chinese Zodiac coins from Hong Kong.  I bought the coins and a few other things for Sandy and came back to Korea excited to give them to her.  At school, during some downtime, I wrapped them up in an old Korean Times.  I could already imagine her face, opening up such a thoughtful gift.

“These are for your coin collection,” I would say.

Her jaw would drop.  Obviously.  “Oh my God,” she would say.  “This is such a thoughtful gift.  You remembered that I have a coin collection and you brought these back for me.  You’re…I don’t know what to say…you’re fucking amazing.  You’re the best non-exclusive pseudo-boyfriend a girl who’s not ready for a relationship could have!”

This scene played in my head as I rode the subway over to her apartment.  These coins were going to melt her heart, the way stopping the world would melt the guy from Modern English.  Damn, I told myself, I am one excellent guy.  I listen and I remember and I buy really cheap gifts based on all that.

Sandy seemed happy to have me back.  She cooked me a delicious tofu stir fry and then the moment had arrived.  It was time for her to open her gifts.  We sat on her bed and I handed her the wrapped coins.

I was excited and confident and, as she tore the Korean Times away, I said what I had pictured myself saying, “These are for your coin collection.”

She looked up at me in confusion.  “Coin collection?  What coin collection?  I don’t have a coin collection.”

I looked down at the coin set in her hands and then back up at her.  “Huh?  Yeah you do.  You told me about it…how you have a little hobby of collecting coins.”

Suddenly she seemed serious – a little angry even.  “I do NOT have a hobby of collecting coins.  I never told you that.  You must be thinking of somebody else.”

“No, I’m not,” I said, arguing pointlessly.  “You keep them in a glass jar…over there…you said your brother gave you a loonie and a toonie…”

“Um,” she said,” those were left by the girl who had this apartment before I moved in.  It’s just a bunch of spare change.  And my brother gave me a loonie and a toonie because, um, we’re Canadian.  He was giving me some money, not donating to any make believe collection.”

I was stunned.  There was no coin collection after all.  Yet I could clearly remember talking about it.  Could it have been possible that I was confusing her with some other girl?  Somebody must’ve had a coin collection.  Why did I think she had a coin collection?  And why, having given her a dud gift, was I still arguing with her?

“Well, even if you don’t actually have a coin collection, I can remember you saying you did.  Maybe you told me you have a coin collection by mistake.”

She set the coins down on the bed.  “Why would I do that?  This is great.  You go ahead and make up anything you want.  Like I said before, you never listen to me.  I tell you things and you don’t pay any attention.  You just hear what you want to hear.”

It had all gone so horribly wrong.  My thoughtful gift was actually completely thoughtless.

“It’s fine,” she said.  “I’ll put them on a string and hang them up somewhere.”

“Hey,” I said, trying to be funny, “maybe you can start a coin collection now.”

“No thanks.”

The moral of the story is this: don’t try too hard to make someone feel special.   Any old gift probably would’ve done the job.  I got too cute.  Or maybe the moral is that when you go to China (or Hong Kong), you should just buy people things with dragons on them.  Dragons never, ever disappoint.  So if you’re taking notes, you will want to write those two things down:

Don’t try too hard.

Dragons.

*

I May Be Anti A Lot of Things, But I’m Not Antiperspirant

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Back when I was in college, a friend approached me and said, “Hey man, since you’re from around here, let me ask you for directions.  I’m not asking Brad anymore.  He only knows how to get places from his parents’ house.  Every time I ask him for directions, he sends me there first.”

When he said that last part, I knew I was in trouble.  This was also my understanding of the city I grew up in – every location was relative to my parents’ house, as though our home on Spicewood Lane was the center of Rochester, NY, and every road or highway stemmed from there.  Driving to the mall or to the movies, I’d almost always find myself going to my parents’ house first because that was the only way I knew how to get places.  If my trip originated from a different location, I’d be completely lost, like a tourist driving through downtown for the first time.

Sometimes living in Korea is like that too.  This has never been as evident as it was last week, when I ran out of deodorant and things went into crisis mode.

I stunk.  I never thought my body could produce such horrible B.O. until I sat in my classroom and I couldn’t breathe.  My own armpits were suffocating me.  The can of Nivea deodorant I’d been using for the past couple months ran out on a Monday, and by Thursday I reeked like a homeless man or my father when he’d come back from jogging.  It wasn’t that I’d stopped showering – washing my armpits in the morning simply wasn’t helping.  By lunch time I was funkier than Bootsy Collins.  This wouldn’t have been a problem, except I couldn’t find a can of deodorant in Seoul to save my life.

The search started with convenience stores, although I knew that would be futile.  Soon I was popping into pharmacies and cosmetics stores, taking an invisible can of deodorant and spraying myself to communicate my needs to the Korean clerks.  The salespeople in Korean shops are funny because they apparently have no idea what the store has in stock.  They’d nod, a look of panic in their eyes, and then start scanning the shelves.  After a few minutes they would turn to me and, giving up, simply say “no.”

Running out of ideas, I went to Leah, my boss.  “Leah,” I said.  “You might have noticed lately that I really stink.  I’m having trouble finding deodorant.  Where do they sell it here?”

She looked perplexed.  “I will check the Internet,” she said, in a voice that didn’t inspire confidence.

I was frustrated.  Since moving to Seoul, I hadn’t been able to find garbage bags or socks, and now I couldn’t find deodorant.  That Thursday night I headed for the Homeplus in Bupyeong (Homeplus is Korea’s version of Target), figuring my problem would be solved.  I felt relaxed.  It was almost ten at night, and I walked through the aisles unsuccessfully.  I approached a saleslady and asked her.

“Ah, deodorant,” she said.  “It is seasonal item.  Only in summer.  No more deodorant now.”

Suddenly a rage overtook me.  I turned my head away, my face getting red.  In the form of a loud whisper, my frustration boiled over.  “Fuck this shit!  This is bullshit.  How the fuck is there no fucking deodorant?  Not one fucking can.  Fuck Homeplus in its fucking face.  What kind of fucking place only sells deodorant in the fucking summer?  Fuck this place.  Fuck Korea.”

I took a deep breath and turned back to the saleslady.  “Kamsahamnida,” I said and got the heck out of there.  Some friends of mine had organized a dinner that night.  With no other options, I bought a bottle of Fabreze.  Seconds after arriving at the restaurant, I stood in front of my friends and blasted myself with it.  What other choice did I have?  Yes, I felt ridiculous, especially since the Fabreze completely soaked my shirt.  But I wasn’t going to put them through dealing with my funk.  Not at dinner.  Not if I wanted to keep them as friends.

Come the weekend, I knew where I had to go.  All last year I lived near the Arts Center in Incheon, and I could picture the exact location of deodorant in the Homeplus there.  It was a little depressing, a little deflating, knowing that I was going to make a 3 hour trip when surely there had to be someplace in Seoul that stocked deodorant.  I didn’t care.  Really, I wanted to go back to a place I was familiar with, where I knew how to find things and everything was as right as rain.

So I did.  I took the subway from Sindebang to Sindorim, then transferred to the dark blue line to Bupyeong, then transferred again to the light blue line to Arts Center.  I went to the Quizno’s where I used to eat all the time and had a sub.  Full and happy, I made my way to the Homeplus, where I purchased two cans of deodorant.  Buying two made me feel better.  I was “stocking up.”  Only a fool would come all this way for one can.  I was leaving with a full supply.

Taking the subway back, I felt good.  Korea might not really be my home, but at least I had a home there.  Like how driving to my parents’ house helped me understand the layout of Rochester.  There are certain places that are more than reference points.  They’re knowledge points, places where buying deodorant, garbage bags, and socks is as easy as buying deodorant, garbage bags, and socks should be.

*

How the Use of Improper Garbage Bags Briefly Complicated My Life in Korea

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In the Land of Kimchi, there are yellow garbage bags, and there are white ones.  Both have writing in Korean on them that I don’t understand, and neither seems to come in the size of what I would consider a normal garbage bag to be.  Don’t get me wrong – they come in a variety of different sizes, ranging from small to very small to super teeny tiny.  The yellow one is for food and the white one is for everything else.  I believe plastic bottles are also supposed to be separated, but I’m not sure.  Once filled, a person puts their garbage out somewhere in front of their apartment building, where it is later picked up at some point in time.  By someone.  Possibly a city worker.  Maybe with a garbage truck.  In truth, I really have no idea what the hell happens to the garbage.

This is about as deep as my knowledge on the trash system in South Korea goes.  In America, disposing of garbage made some sense – I had a specific spot where I was supposed to leave the garbage, there was a specific time on a specific day when a company that I paid came and took it.  In Korea, things aren’t quite the same.  I have never once seen a garbage truck or a garbage man, and yet they must come around at least once a day to get rid of all the trash.  There are very few dumpsters or public garbage cans, and trash seems to be disposed of randomly here.  Like what you would generally consider littering seems to make up a good portion of the Korean sanitation system.  Every day when I walk to work I pass about a hundred garbage bags thrown all over the street, some free floating trash, a billion cigarette butts, and usually a nice puddle of vomit someone left from the night before.  It’s messy, sort of like Korea is a teenage boy and the streets are its bedroom.

Another difference between Korea and the US is that a person has to purchase regulation garbage bags in order to throw their trash away.  Obviously this is sort of a fallacy, as I saw all sorts of shit dumped in front of my last apartment building, and the box for a large pizza can’t even fit in a garbage bag unless you cut it up into pieces.  Seriously, I filled two regulation garbage bags once with one empty pizza box.  But I digress – one is supposed to only throw away trash in regulation garbage bags.  My first week in Seoul, about a month ago, I violated this rule, was caught doing so on hidden camera, and thus became the most hated waygook in all the chopstick-lovin’ world.

Finding regulation garbage bags in Incheon was easy.  The convenience store by my apartment had them sitting by the register, near the strawberry flavored condoms.  But in Seoul, the rules of the game are different.  Convenience stores don’t sell garbage bags, and so I would leave with only a few packs of strawberry condoms and absolutely no place to throw my trash.  Only one store had anything remotely similar – they were actual, regular size garbage bags and, subsequently, they were not government regulation.  With no other options, I bought them.  For the next week, my first in Seoul, I threw all my leftover food, empty milk cartons, large pizza boxes, and the vomit I had left from the night before in one big bag.  When the bag was full, I tied it off and then wondered what to do with it.

I knew that I couldn’t throw the bag in front of my apartment.  It wasn’t regulation.  The last thing I wanted was to look like the dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to behave as the locals do.  So one morning I snuck out into the street with my enormous garbage bag, deviously planning to inconspicuously dispose of it.  I saw some trash bags sitting outside a different apartment building and thought that I would simply toss my bag over with them.  Who would know?  I walked over briskly and dropped my bag with the others.  They looked good together, especially since my bag was so much larger.  It was like a group of friends, and all cliques need at least one enormous fat guy.  Anyways, I went back to my apartment, proud of my work, thinking the entire garbage fiasco was over.

I was wrong.  An hour before my workday ended, my boss, Leah, came into my classroom.  “Bill,” she said, “did you throw garbage-ee in front of an apartment building this morning?”

Her face showed concerned.  I was thrown.  How did she know?  “Um, yeah…” I mumbled.

“Oh!” she bellowed, then stormed off.  She came back later, and when the kids were gone she sat down on top of one of the desks to talk to me.  “Apartment owner had hidden camera set up and has recording of you throwing very big trash bag in front of building,” she said, devastated.  “He came here because he knows there is foreign teacher.  He showed me tape and it was you!  He will sue you for illegal trash dump!”

“Sue me?” I asked, bewildered.  “He can do that?”

“Yes!” Leah said.  “Why did you throw trash there?”

I then had to explain how I knew I had the wrong garbage bag, didn’t want to look dumb, and purposely tried to dispose of it on the down low.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “I will talk to him,” she said.  “He is very angry!”

“Can I talk to him?”

“No!  I will talk.  You can’t speak Korean.  What will you say to him?  Ahn-nyoung-ha-say-o?”

Having Leah talk to him probably was the smarter tactic – despite being my boss, she’s young and very cute.  If anyone could derail the lawsuit I was threatened with, it was her.  Still, I felt angry.  Hidden camera?  Seriously?  How much could he possibly sue me for?  Really, it was all Korea’s fault anyways.  Why had they made garbage bags harder to find than stick deodorant?

The next day, Leah pulled me into the office.  “The government will come to talk to us today,” she said, and an hour later two men in suits came.  They didn’t say one word to me, only spoke in deep voices to her.  Leah kept pointing at me and looking surprised.  Finally there was silence.  Everyone looked at me and I giggled uncomfortably.  The government men, thankfully, laughed too.  When they had left, I asked her what was said.

“It is okay,” she told me.  “I said you are stupid foreigner and didn’t know.  They said this will be your warning.”

“So it’s over?” I asked, in my stupid foreigner voice.  “There’s no lawsuit?”

“Yes, it is over,” she said, kindly.  “I will take you to grocery store tonight and we will buy garbage bags.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  Even though I have been living in Korea for over a year, the stupid foreigner card still worked.  The trash lawsuit was over and I was able to focus again on my classroom.  I had a few minutes before the students would come and I spent the time straightening the desks, cleaning the board, and throwing away old worksheets in the cardboard box Leah had given me to use as a garbage can.

*