Plastic Enthusiastic


In 2008, a woman named Hang Mioku appeared on a popular television program and instantly became one of Korea’s most infamous pseudo-celebrities.  At the age of 28, Mioku underwent her first plastic surgery operation.  Twenty years later, Mioku had gone through so many facial reconstruction surgeries that she was left scarred and disfigured.  Doctors refused to treat her anymore.  But she stayed persistent enough to find one doctor who was willing to give her a home injection kit that she could use to give herself silicon shots.  Believe it or not, giving Hang Mioku a syringe turned out to be a bad idea.  She ran out of silicon and, still wanting to make herself beautiful, began injecting cooking oil into her face.  By the time she appeared on television, her face was swollen and enormous, making her look something like a cross between a troll and a sumo wrestler.  The television show raised enough money to get Mioku help, and she would eventually undergo a procedure where over 200 grams of cooking oil was taken out of her face and neck.

Plastic surgery is generally accepted in South Korea and doesn’t carry with it the kind of negative connotation it has in the States.  An article on states that over 50 percent of women in their 20s have had some sort of operation done.  Of them, a good number had their work done while they were in high school.  The most common procedures are getting a nose job where the bridge of the nose is heightened, or having a “double eyelid” operation to make the eyes look more Western.  The motivation for going through these procedures is simple: Koreans just want to look good and attract a mate.

My motivation for visiting the plastic surgery wing of Gil Hospital was far different.  After slamming my face into a beer glass, I had twelve stitches put in around my left eyebrow, a process that I missed in favor of a nice drunken nap.  You can imagine how odd it felt when I was told I had to have the plastic surgery unit examine me later in the week.  “But I already have double eyelids,” I thought, taking my appointment card from the receptionist.  As much as I was disturbed at having hurt myself while drunk, I was a bit more upset by the idea that a doctor might have to take a scalpel and reconstruct part of my face.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I had my Korean friend text me the words “plastic surgery” in Hangul.  My phone out and ready, I showed the words to the front desk, and later to a bunch of nurses I passed by when I was lost in the hospital hallways.  None of them spoke English.  And since I can’t speak Korean, I would just say “hello” and show them the screen of my phone, which said “plastic surgery.”  The nurses would nod enthusiastically, perhaps thinking that I had gone in for a nose reduction. 

Finally I found the Plastic Surgery Unit.  The nurses were all rather attractive, with pale skin and lovely makeup.  I looked around, hoping to see people bandaged up like the heroine of the Twilight Zone “Eye of the Beholder” episode.  There was nothing.  The Plastic Surgery Unit was empty.  Eventually I would spend portions of two days there, having my head looked at.  On the second trip, the surgeon – a young fellow who spoke some English – yanked the stitches out of my head.  He did so in silence, and in that blank space of time I concentrated on the pain and tried to picture what my scar might look like.  Like most people who came to this place, I imagined, I would be leaving looking at least a little differently than I had coming in.

Good old Hang Mioku, with all that cooking oil in her mug, wanted to be attractive. I just wanted things to go back to normal.  I guess the difference between us is that she believed that she could, if she put in enough money and effort, really be beautiful.  I’d given up on that notion a long time ago.  Plastic surgery is for people who only trust aesthetics, and who don’t doubt the idea that beauty is possible.  That acceptance is possible, and that beauty and acceptance go hand-in-hand.  When Hang Mioku went on that television show, the loudest thought in her head must’ve been, “Please, please look at me.”

Walking out of the Korean hospital, where I didn’t speak the language and stuck out like a broken thumb, I didn’t particularly care to be accepted by anyone around me.  I’d walk home by myself and that would be fine.  I could even run my fingertip across the ridge of the small scar that ran through the hair of my eyebrow.  Right over the jagged crack in my skin that will stay there forever.


Peacocks in Chinatown


Amy and I were walking through Jeyu Park when I turned to her and said something that some might consider offensive.  “You know what I’d like to be able to do?” I said.  “I’d like to be able to look at an Asian person and say with certainty, ‘That’s a Chinese person.’  Or, ‘That person is Korean.’”

Jeyu Park is at the heart of Korea’s Chinatown, located in Incheon.  In 2002, the South Korean government spent $18 million creating a Chinatown, hoping that it would be a lure for Chinese investors and tourists.  Red lanterns line the streets, restaurants serving chajangmyon (noodles in black bean sauce) are everywhere, and there is even a statue of Confucius given to Korea as a gift from China.  Small shops are ubiquitous, selling glass bird whistles and wooden swords, Chinese fans and large painted pots.

“Do you think Asians can tell each other apart?” I asked Amy.  She said they could, and rather easily.  I looked at the people in the park.  What were the giveaways?  Skin color or shade, the roundness of the face, the shape of the eyes, the length of the nose?  I had no idea.  Then I turned to Amy and asked a question that I would eventually look up on the Internet, and which would spark the idea for this essay, “I wonder how many of the people in Chinatown are actually Chinese?”

Not many, as it turns out.  Up until 1945, Korea was colonized by Japan, and during that time the majority of the Chinese people living in Korea were ousted by the Japanese.  But even after Korea gained its independence, things didn’t improve at all for Chinese immigrants.  The Korean government passed laws disallowing Chinese residents from owning land, it was made illegal for Chinese restaurants to serve rice, and Chinese people living in Korea were forced to renew their residential permits every three years.  The Chinese population decreased every year, until it bottomed out at about 25,000 for the entire country.  Today, Chinese residents still have restrictions, having to prove financial ability in order to stay in Korea, and having Alien Registration Numbers that deny them access to Korean Internet sites and email accounts.

About one-third of the shops and restaurants in Chinatown are run by actual Chinese people.  The rest are run by Koreans.  I had to read an article from the New York Times to get that figure.  Apparently an Asian person can ascertain such a stat just by looking around at faces.

At the height of Jeyu Park, there is a large clearing where cheap kites are sold for 5,000 Won.  Each kite has a gaudy picture of a peacock on it, and comes with about two miles worth of string wrapped around a plastic handle.  Amy and I bought a kite, took it into the square, and tried our best to fly it.  Our peacock struggled to catch the wind, flapping its one-dimensional wings and falling pitifully to the ground.  An old Asian man laughed at us.  Several others tried to help us.  Finally a woman with a baby on her back succeeded in getting our kite off the ground.  We looked into the air and there it was, our peacock flying proudly in the cloudless sky with the rest of the kites.  It was a sky devoid of real birds, populated only with painted peacocks attached to string. 

Perhaps it was a decent analogy for where we were.  We were in the center of a Chinatown without Chinese people, an ethnic community run by the dominant race, gazing up at a sky filled with fake birds.  Amy let the rest of the string go and our bird soared higher than any of the others.  It was a cool sight to see, our bird flying way up high, looking at us and all the others down below, probably thinking we all looked exactly the same.


Totally Krossed Out, Totally Stitched Up


Here is the lie I told my school on Monday, March 28th, when I walked into the teacher workroom with a giant bandage across my head:  I didn’t mention anything about backwards clothing, the 1990s, or the beautiful moment my face and the dance floor got to meet.  Instead, I told them the following:

“On Saturday, I was over at Bupyeong Middle School with my South African friends, playing football.  You know I’m not athletic, but they’ve been trying to convince me for awhile to join up and play and since it was such a nice day, I finally cracked.  Well, anyways, we were playing football – American football, that is, cause they needed a break from soccer or something – and I went out for a long pass.  I was running and looking over my shoulder, and that’s when I ran straight into my friend Matt.  Bang!  Knocked our heads right together.  I was down on the field, thinking why, oh why, did I agree to this?  Then I was off to the hospital to get stitches.  I’ll tell ya this – I am NEVER playing football again!”

Did my school buy it?  I have no idea.  They seemed to find it funny though.  Admittedly, the idea of me on the football field is ridiculous enough to warrant laughter.

“How long were you playing?” Hye Jeong asked.  “Five minutes?”

The real story isn’t exactly better, but it’s far more believable.  On Friday, March 25th, I went to a ‘90s theme party thrown at a bar called Underground.  I wanted to dress up but I didn’t want to spend any money, so I threw my jeans and a football jersey on backwards, turned my hat to the back, and went as 1/2 of the rap group Kriss Kross.  I suppose I was the one with the lighter skin, although I only know the verse first verse of the song, the one by the kid with the darker skin, who was obviously the more talented of the two.  “Don’t try to compare us to another bad little fad/I’m the mack and I’m bad/give ya somethin’ that you never had.”  The song played on a continual loop in my head, taking me back to the ninth grade, when I would ask someone “You down with OPP?”, get the response “Yeah, you know me!” and walk away not knowing at all what the question or that answer really meant.

It was a tough time to go through puberty.  Kurt Cobain died, OJ was found innocent, and the Broncos won not just one but two Super Bowls.  I grew up with the world turned upside down.

But back to Underground, the ‘90s party, and my accident.  At around 2:30 in the morning, I was good and drunk.  Like a fool, I listened to the alcohol when it talked to me: “I’m delicious – have more of me”; “You look really cool with your backwards clothes”; “Know all those times when you’re sober and you tell people you can’t dance?  Well you’re wrong!  Get out there on the dance floor and break it down Hammer style!”  Out to the dance floor I went, trying to shake it with a tall blonde friend dressed as Brittney Spears.  For a few blurry minutes, I was completely enjoying myself, drinking my beer and shaking it with Brittney.  Life couldn’t get any better.  Like the real Kriss Kross, though, my stay at the top was short lived.

Quicker than you can say “Oops, I did it again,” Brittney started to fall.  It all happened so fast.  Somehow I was falling too.  Down to the floor we went.  She ended up on her back (as Brittney often does), and I ended up slamming my face into a beer mug.  Wondering whether the fall was caused by Britt or my sagging backwards pants, I could feel the blood pouring down my face.  A few minutes later I was holding a tissue above my left eye, standing in the bathroom, occasionally bringing it down and looking at the massive red gash in my forehead.

I showed everyone my wound, waiting sullenly for the inevitable look of horror and the recurrent utterance of the word ‘stitches.’

The owner of the bar called an ambulance, and I was off to Gil Hospital.  Waiting in the emergency room, I snuck off to the bathroom.  The hospital staff hadn’t really seen me yet.  There was something I had to do before the CT Scan, before the nurse cleaned my divot with some kind of salt solution that made me wince in pain, and before the surgeon weaved the stitches through my face.  I was drunk, bleeding, and didn’t speak a word of the language.  Still I had a little pride left, at least enough to force me into the bathroom.   I didn’t want to look any more foolish than I had to.

In the bathroom I undressed.  I put my football jersey on the right way.  I pulled the jeans up so that the zipper was in the front.

There was no way I could sit in the emergency room with my clothes on backwards.  The ‘90s were over.  I searched for my insurance card.  “I’m a professional teacher,” I thought, holding gauze to the cut, composing my story, bit by bit, about how it all happened on a sunny Saturday morning at a football field for teenagers.


Iron Willy


Recently, I fell and planted my head into a beer glass, which got me thinking about other goofy accidents I’ve had.  None could be more bizarre than my ironing accident from two months ago.  It was a minor event – thankfully – that didn’t leave any lasting scar or injury.  Just an uncomfortable feeling in my pants for two or three miserable days.

About two months ago, I was at the height of my “competent adult” mentality, where I wanted to prove to the world that I could go through my life in a reasonable and responsible manner.  Part of being a competent adult is ironing, I felt.  Mature individuals don’t show up to work in wrinkled clothes that look like shit, and so I began getting out of bed fifteen minutes earlier than normal so I could do my ironing.  Mind you, I hated every second of it, but once it was done I was able to at least look at myself in a mirror and think that I looked rather together.

One morning I had already ironed my shirt and pants, but while I was shaving (shaving every day is another part of the “competent adult” program) it dawned on me that I hadn’t ironed my undershirt.  I thought about this while I took my shower.  A mature individual doesn’t just iron the main shirt and say to hell with the undershirt.  That’s what a lazy individual does.  I washed my feet, turned off the shower, plugged the iron back in, and slapped the t-shirt down on the ironing board.  Confident that I was going to look fantastic, there I stood, completely nude in the center of my apartment ironing.

But my mind drifted.  I lost focus and in a flash the iron slipped off the shirt and briefly made contact with my body.  It was only a second, a short kiss of the hot iron on my skin, but boy did I feel it.  Especially due to where the iron landed. 

I had, in a moment of carelessness, ironed my penis.

“Ahh!” I yelled, realizing what happened.  “My penis!”  I ran to the bathroom and splashed cold water on the tip.  My god, I thought, how bad did I get it?  I looked at it.  Already a small white discoloration had formed.  I touched it and it felt hard, as if one tiny part of my Johnson was in a state of permanent Viagra.

Like I said earlier, it turned out not to be a big deal.  In a few days, things were back to normal.  I wondered, though, what I would’ve said if I was lucky enough to bring a girl home during the time of the discoloration.  How would I have explained it?

“No, don’t be ridiculous, it’s not an STD.  That’s crazy!  See, what happened was, I was ironing and I slipped and I accidentally dewrinkled my Willy with the iron.  That little white bump is just a burn.  So it’s nothing, really!  Get over here, baby!”

The whole “competent adult” thing is all about baby steps.  Right now, the plan is in a bit of a decline.  I haven’t been shaving every day lately and my clothes are wrinkled.  Yet at the same time, my private parts have been unharmed by hot metal items.  It’s a trade off I’m willing to make – sacrificing a bit of my adulthood for the safety of my manhood.


Dan Has Beer


It wasn’t hard for me to say I was an alcoholic at my first AA meeting.  On the other hand, it took me at least four or five meetings to walk up and pick up a white chip.  The white chip signifies nothing other than the admittance that your “life has become unmanageable” and the understanding that by taking it you are expressing a sincere desire to stop drinking.  I still have my white chip in a drawer in my apartment.  It’s the only chip I ever picked up. 

When I stood up, walked across the room, and took my white chip, everyone clapped like I had just won a Grammy or something.  The guy in charge of the chips was young and thin.  He hugged me and said something to me that I don’t remember.  I saw him at a few other meetings.  He always referred to himself as a “recovered alcoholic.”  He hadn’t had a drink in five years.  I wondered why he had to include that word “recovered” when he introduced himself.  He must’ve been one of those people that couldn’t say he was an alcoholic, not like I could.  What would he say if he had a relapse?  He would have to take the word “recovered” out, I suppose, and say “I’m an alcoholic” like the rest of us.  I bet he wouldn’t go to the meetings anymore if that happened.

I remember one meeting when we were going around the room and introducing ourselves.  There was a man in a red shirt with sweat on his face.  He was nervous when he spoke.

“Hello, I’m Dan and I’m an alcoholic,” he said, a little too loudly.  “I just bought a twelve pack of beer.  It’s in the trunk of my car.  I think I’m gonna go home and drink it tonight.  It’s been two and a half years since I had a drink and today I just stopped at a gas station and bought some beer.  Two and a half years and I don’t want to drink it but I think I’m going to.  I came to the meeting ‘cause I don’t know what to do.  Please don’t say anything to me.  I just want to sit here and think.”

“Thanks Dan,” the group said.  Just like he asked, no one said anything to him.  No one else who shared mentioned Dan.  People didn’t look at Dan. 

Maybe that’s because when Dan said he had a twelve pack of beer in the trunk of his car, I could almost hear a collective gasp fill the room.  He might as well have said he had a dead kid in there.  The atmosphere was a little heavy for the rest of the meeting.  It was our great fear, and it was there in the room.  That one day, just out of the damn blue, something makes an alcoholic go and start drinking again.  It’s scary, knowing that in April you’re working on your third year of sobriety and in May you’re no better than the guy picking up that first white chip.  That you can call yourself a “recovered alcoholic,” but you’re never really “recovered,” are you?  The worst part was imagining how awful Dan felt, sitting in his chair and listening to people talk, knowing very well that he’d feel so much better after having five or six of those beers.

I don’t know if Dan drank the beer he had in his trunk.  I’d like to think that he didn’t, that the people at the meeting helped him and they stood in the parking lot of the clinic where the AA meeting was and poured the beer out onto the asphalt.  I’d like to think that Dan drove home with a great sense of relief, got home and slept, knowing there would never be a time when he wouldn’t need someone’s help.

The next day maybe Dan woke up in the dark of the morning, still going on three years.  He might’ve sat outside, a little ashamed and a little saddened, in the warm North Carolina air, waiting for the new day to open like a spring magnolia.


A Bow and Bandages









Melanie had a giant vat of Cheeseballs in her living room, and she poured some in a bowel for us to eat while we watched television.  Cheeseballs are Melanie’s favorite snack; I reached into the bowel to have a few and she slapped my hand.

“No!” she said.  “Use fork!”  Melanie handed me a fork.  Trying my best to just go with it, I impaled a Cheeseball and ate it.  “It’s better that way,” Melanie said.  “Using the fork makes it very clean.”

Spending a lot of time with an Asian girl leads to many moments like this, quirky touches a guy like me doesn’t have the creativity to make up.  Melanie (who was dubbed that by her English teacher in high school) eats Cheeseballs with a fork so she doesn’t get cheedle on her fingers.  She told me she learned English by watching Gossip Girls and One Tree Hill.  She is from Taiwan but lives in Korea.  When I asked her how to tell the difference between a Chinese girl and a Korean one, she said, “You must look at the clothes.  If she is naked, it is impossible.”

Melanie and I met at a dance club.  It was her birthday.  We did a few shots and eventually exchanged numbers before Melanie passed out face down on the bar and was carried off by some big Korean dude.  For two weeks we didn’t meet but talked to each other on the phone.  She constantly spoke about teaching me Korean.  Melanie is a translator; she speaks Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese.  Currently, she works with a Korean television actor, translating interviews with him for Chinese and Japanese magazines.

Eventually she and I met up one night, and we had a lot of fun drinking at a bar and playing pool.  Melanie’s English was good enough to hold a decent conversation, and she looked extremely cute with a little bow in her hair.  We made plans to meet again.  But since this is Topiclessbar, you can’t expect things to work out, right? 

On what was really our first date, Melanie had an enormous scab on her lower lip and her right eyelid was red and swollen.  I asked her about her lip and she said, “It was from kissing you.”  I was astonished.  We had barely kissed, and I didn’t recall biting a chunk of her lip off.  Eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant and having coffee together, I let the lip and the eyelid slide because Melanie was terribly sweet, funny, and endearing.  We made future plans and started spending a good deal of time together.

The lip, however, was just the beginning of her physical problems.  Fooling around in bed one night, I took Melanie’s bra off to find one of her nipples bandaged.  “It is scratched,” she said.  The next week, Melanie came to my apartment in a back brace.  “I hurt my waist,” she told me.  She had been to the hospital earlier in the day to have her back worked on.  I’m not sure what procedure they did, but when I looked at her back, it was covered in large red ovals.  Melanie could barely walk or even lay down.  “I am a patient,” she said, and I felt bad because she had ridden the bus an hour with that bum back just to see me.

The physical problems perhaps could’ve been overlooked had they not had such an effect on our sex life, or lack thereof.  At first, Melanie said she could not have sex in her apartment because she lived there for twelve years and didn’t “want any memories” to spoil the place.  Then, at my apartment, her back hurt too much to do anything.  Finally, I just asked her bluntly what the problem was.

“Why can’t we have sex?” I asked.  “Are you a virgin?”

Melanie paused and thought.  She said she didn’t know how to say it in English.  She went over to the computer and used the translator.

“My womb is hurt,” she told me.

“What?” I said, confounded.  “Your womb?  What happened?”

“It is stress,” she said.  “My womb is very painful.”

That wasn’t the only physical manifestation her stress had taken.  One night she took my hand and put it on the back of her neck.  There were several large red bumps there.  “Jesus,” I said, “what is that?” 

“It is from stress,” she said, her body going all Black Swan on her, “because I cannot see you every day.”

I began to feel terrible about my relationship with her.  She called me and texted me all the time, came to my apartment and cleaned it, bought me a scarf when she thought I looked cold, and did many other incredibly nice things.  Still, as much as I tried to force myself into adoring her that same way, I couldn’t.  I began to wonder if I would actually prefer to be with a girl who wasn’t all that nice to me but would sleep with me.  Could I really be that shallow? I had found a girl who was loving and kind, and who wanted to be with me.  The situation got depressing and I started feeling sad when I was around her.  This girl was so good, we got along so well, and still there was no way I could go on seeing her.  Not with that womb.

Melanie and I are still friends.  We talk a few times every week and we have a nice relationship.  She’s such a wonderful human being, and if I was a better person, she would be my lady.  I suppose we all have someone like Melanie in our pasts, or maybe we’ve been the Melanie for somebody else.  I’m talking about the person who gets rejected for not being good enough, when really they’re so much better than the whole damn world. 

Or at least better than the person doing the rejecting.


Later, Voyager








I’m 77% an adult.  This number comes from the “Adultness Test,” created by Dr. Robert Epstein, an American psychologist.  The test is comprised of 140 questions, ranging from knowledge of law to odd things like, “True or False: A woman can be impregnated through oral sex.”  My adult score was dragged down heavily by a putrid 33% in “physical abilities” and a disappointing 56% in “self management.”  So, in other words, the fact that I don’t exercise isn’t really my fault – I have poor self management skills.

Being an adult is important to me.  It became important once I moved out of my parents’ house to go to college.  I remember my roommates being shocked by all the things I didn’t know how to do.  I couldn’t cook anything; I couldn’t do my laundry; I had never had a job.  When I was hungry, I microwaved something.  My white clothing didn’t stay that way for long.  When I was broke, I called my parents.  In an apartment of young adults, I was just young.

Assuming I’d successfully grown up at least a little bit through the years, the massive regression came when I split from my ex, after spending 7 years together.  Moving into an apartment by myself, I didn’t have a bed, a dresser, a computer, or any furniture for months.  I slept on the floor.  I kept my clothes in cardboard boxes.  When I finally decided I needed a place to sit, I took a wooden chair from the dumpster.  It didn’t really matter to me, because all I wanted to do was drink and write.  By the time I finally bought a bed – a nifty fold-up number from K-mart – I had amassed hundreds of empty beer bottles and maybe two completed short stories.

77%, Mr. Epstein? 

Depression, alcohol abuse, and the lack of any decent personal relationships turned my life in North Carolina to crap.  I would get incredibly sad leaving work, knowing I would be sitting in my empty apartment alone for the rest of the night.  I accepted a job in South Korea, and I told myself that this would be a new beginning.  The start of a new way.  I was going to be a “competent adult” if it killed me.  My eyes were filled with stars as I pictured myself doing amazing things, such as saving money, keeping a clean apartment, and developing relationships and friendships with people.  I spent the last week in North Carolina more or less isolated with nobody else around.  When I finally left, only one person cried because I was going and that was my therapist.  I wondered if I had to pay her extra for the tears.

The question is, then, how am I doing?  How is this whole competent adult thing going?  Overall, I’m fairly happy with myself.  My apartment is typically kept up nicely, I’ve been a good employee, and I’ve been able to send money home.  I’ve put more effort into my physical appearance, keeping myself fed, and trying to be a good person than I have in the past.  I’ve made strong friendships with people, and when dating relationships have fallen apart, I’ve done my best to accept it.  Granted, there are screw-ups every now and then, like landing in the hospital after a drunken fall , for instance.  Hey, I’m a work in progress.  The key word being “progress.”

It all reminds me a lot of the movie “Now, Voyager,” staring the great Bette Davis.  In it, Bette is a grown woman stuck in a state of arrested development thanks to her overbearing mom.  A shrink (played by Claude Rains) gets involved, and decides the only way for her to become an adult is to – ready for some out-of-the-box thinking – take a long trip by herself.  Hence, she goes on a cruise on the “Voyager,” where she eventually develops her independence and then, of course, finds love.  Coming to Korea, at least in part, is my “Now, Voyager” kick.  In this strange place, I’ve started to take care of myself.  It isn’t “Now, Voyager,” because it hasn’t fully happened as of “now.”  Maybe it’ll be soon. 

It should be, right?  I only have 23% to go, after all.