I Hope This Man Found What He Is Looking For


The “Stats” page on anyone’s WordPress.com blog is fascinating. Even though my blog doesn’t get many hits, I’m a bit obsessed with it. I like the bar graphs and I like to see the numbers change. Another thing I like is the part called “Search Engine Terms.” This lets me see the things people type into a search engine that ultimately brings them to my precious little blog. Often times, as I’m sure any other blogger can tell you, the Search Engine Terms are hilarious. In the past week, I’ve gotten gems such as “why do Asians like peacocks,” “cinemax best lesbian scenes,” and “disfigured cows.”

Of all of them, though, there is one I feel I have to share. Maybe three or four days ago, someone was directed to my blog after searching “Penis Ironing.” I have to wonder why on God’s green Earth somebody searched that. Hopefully this isn’t a new fetish cropping up. If so, I will start exclusively dating girls who always wear really wrinkled clothing. I have to say, though, I’m not sure what’s sadder – that somebody searched “penis ironing,” or that the term “penis ironing” leads a person to my blog. It’s a bit shameful, actually. Other blogs have deep thoughts on life, religion, and politics; meanwhile, I’m apparently the place to go if one wants to read about ironing his penis. Yay me!

That is all for today. Happy Halloween, peoples. Peace!

The Children at the Bo De Pagoda


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


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.



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


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.


The Parrot Joke Bombs Again, Making Me Slightly More Disappointed with the World


I know a ton of jokes.  Of those jokes, one of them is clean.  I usually refer to it as “the clean joke,” although when I feel like being more specific, I call it “the parrot joke.”  I first heard the parrot joke on the Brother Wease Morning Circus circa 1992.  Without further ado, here it is in all its glory:

One day an old woman goes to a pet store.  The pet store guy says, “What are you looking for?” and the lady says, “I’d like to buy a parrot.”  The guy goes, “Oooh.  That’s a problem.  We only have one parrot and its previous owner was a sailor.  It curses all day and all night.  You don’t want it.  It’s terrible.”  The lady thinks about it and then says, “I really had my heart set on a parrot.  It’s okay.  I’ll take him.”

She brings the parrot home and the whole time the parrot is cursing up a storm.  F this, F that.  When they get to her place, she’s had about enough.  She says to the parrot, “Listen, one more curse word, and I’m putting you in the freezer for ten minutes.”  This doesn’t stop the parrot.  He blurts another swear word out immediately.  “Fine,” she says, and she sticks the parrot in the freezer.

Ten minutes later she takes the parrot out.  He’s got icicles on his beak and he’s shaking.  The lady says, “There, did you learn your lesson?”  The parrot nods.  She says, “Are you going to do it again?”  “No way,” the parrot says, “but can you just answer one question for me?”  “Sure,” the lady says.  The parrot looks at her and says, “What the heck did the poor chicken do?”

About four years ago, working in the public school system, a class of about thirty students asked me, their teacher, to tell them a joke.  Obviously, since it’s the only clean joke I know, I went with the parrot joke.  “What the heck did the poor chicken do?” I said, excited to get to the punch line.  The class stared at me.

“That was whack,” one student said loudly, with a hint of anger in his voice.

The truth be told, the parrot joke IS whack.  It’s one of those jokes that’s way more fun to tell than it is to hear.  This can be a difficult concept to convey to people.  Jokes, by nature, are meant to be an experience all about sharing – the joke teller is pleased that the listener laughs and the listener is pleased to have heard a funny joke.  The parrot joke works on a whole different level; I’ve always loved telling the joke because it amuses me that people won’t find it funny.

But lately, almost twenty years from when I first started telling the parrot joke, it just hasn’t been as fun anymore.  Yesterday my class of middle-school Korean kids wanted a joke, and, watching their befuddled faces, I realized in the middle of the parrot joke that I wanted to stop telling it.  That has never happened.  Partly this was my fault, as I should’ve expected non-English speakers to have some, um, difficulty with it (they were so lost in the narrative, it was like they were trying to read James Joyce or something).  A feeling hit me in the middle of the joke that I’m not used to – I knew they wouldn’t laugh, they knew they weren’t going to laugh, and the whole thing seemed pointless.

The kids at the public school four years ago, the students yesterday…the splendor of the parrot joke is lost on them.  In a way, the right reaction to the joke is to acknowledge its badness in an appreciative kind of way.  It’s sort of like how when someone farts, you have to point out the fact that it’s stank.  Sitting in the fart smell and not saying anything sucks.  You farted, it stinks, I hate you for putting me through this, but when the air clears, I will love you again.  Because I know you enjoyed farting.  And you are happy now.

I’m sad to think that a person could hear the parrot joke, shrug his or her shoulders, and be done with it.  I’ve thought about the joke a lot.  Its depth.  There is a chicken dead and frozen in a freezer.  Why?  What did it do to deserve that fate?  The parrot joke tells us that life is not fair and that it’s ridiculous to question that.  If that isn’t a funny thought, I don’t know what is.


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


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.


Loneliness and Despair by the Casino Lisboa


Princess Peaches drives faster than Mario and Luigi, although she doesn’t take corners well and, like most women, is prone to spinning out of control.  She wears a pink dress and a princess crown and is absolutely adorable.  Her speed/lack of control combination makes her a high-risk/high-reward character to choose, a sexy alternative to the safer selections like Toad or Yoshi.  Princess Peaches became my Mario Kart alter-ego ages ago, and when I found myself in an arcade somewhere on Macau Island, I went with the Pink One yet again.  I was the only adult in the place; I’d stumbled into the arcade after getting slightly tipsy off beer that I drank with my lunch on the wharf.  My skills, which aren’t good to begin with, were now impaired, and Peaches flew off the track constantly, like she was being driven by a drunk blind man.  When my Mario Kart game was over, I played some cop game with a little kid where we were partners, shooting at the bad guys.  We got shot and the kid took off and then I, like Peaches after crashing into a wall by the side of the road, was alone.

This was my second day in Macau and I had already done everything I wanted to do.  I’d gone to the Ruins of Sao Paulo Cathedral and to the Macau Tower.  I’d walked around the spooky old Protestant Cemetery and had seen all the cool Portuguese architecture in the island’s center square.  There was something sad about the place, something that struck me as particularly lonely and despairing.  Or maybe that was just the way I was feeling.  I’d been traveling alone for nearly a week.  Being by myself in Hong Kong wasn’t too bad; the crowded city streets made the city seem alive and full of energy.  Macau had a different feeling though.  It seemed like a fruit with the juice drained out, or like a day when the clouds are dark as death but the rain never comes.

Macau was beautiful but, by the second day, had gotten really dreary.

I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to make the most of things.  I went on a bus tour.  I walked along the wharf.  I bought deodorant.  In the evening, I ate dinner in what looked like a little Portuguese diner.  The sun set and I sat in the center square by myself smoking cigarettes.  I thought about the girl I was spending time with in Korea and wondered if she missed me at all.  I took more pictures than I needed to.  The buildings.  The giant casino.  The deodorant.  I wanted to make sure I’d remember it all.

At night I had nothing better to do, so I went into a rather posh bar close to the Casino Lisboa.  There were two large televisions, one showing rugby and the other one golf.  Those aren’t my favorite sports, but at least it was something to look at.  The bartender was friendly and spoke good English.  I ordered an Asahi and lit another cigarette.  I looked around.  There was a table filled with young people, college kids.  Next to them, and closer to where I was, there was another table where two older men sat.  They seemed odd together.  I will describe them:

1.  Indian Guy – Probably in his mid to late fifties.  Wearing a suit.  Thick mustache and thinning hair.  Well dressed.  Seemed somewhat sleazy though.  Probably masturbates a lot.

2.  Ponytail – Also probably in his fifties.  From somewhere in Europe.  Also wearing a suit and also seemed like a sleazy chronic masturbator.  Long grey ponytail didn’t help.

They spoke to each other in English, both in thick accents.  Shortly after my beer arrived, Ponytail got up and went over to the table of college kids.  He approached the girls and talked and laughed and kept motioning over to Indian Guy sitting back at their table.  Indian Guy would just laugh and shake his head ‘no.’  The girls smiled and nodded and seemed polite.  Ponytail didn’t leave though; he kept talking to them.  Like a shower running out of hot water, the girls eventually cooled towards him.  Ponytail was still smiling and nodding when the entire table of college kids got up and left.

This meant that Ponytail, Indian Guy, and I were the only ones still there.  I figured I had no place else to go, like Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and so I ordered another Asahi and struck up a conversation with the bartender.  Still, my attention kept drifting to the other two.  Ponytail had, in an odd move, decided not to sit down across from Indian Guy, where he had been before, but rather to sit in the chair directly next to him, meaning that both of them were sitting on the same side of the table.  And now I could hear them.  Ponytail wanted to buy Indian Guy a drink, but Indian Guy was tired and didn’t want one.  Listening in, it dawned on me that these two weren’t great friends at all – it sounded like they didn’t even know each other.  Maybe they had met in the bar, just two guys wearing suits, looking for company, and they decided to team up.  To any extent, it was clear that Indian Guy wanted out, but Ponytail wouldn’t let go.  To make his position more clear, Indian Guy stood up and moved towards the door.  And that’s when the awful truth hit me:

If Indian Guy left, that meant I would be alone with Ponytail.

And, judging by his character, that meant Ponytail would likely come over and talk to me.

I was having none of that.  Even though my Asahi was far from finished, I told the bartender I had to go and asked for my bill.  From behind me, I heard Indian Guy’s departing words of advice/joke.

“Remember,” he said to Ponytail.  “In the Casino it’s easy…to lose money.”

That made them both laugh hysterically, as though he had said the funniest thing ever.  Ponytail put his hand on Indian Guy’s shoulder and kept laughing and laughing, not wanting to take his hand away and say goodbye, because when he stopped laughing, that would be it.  A man can’t laugh forever though, and finally Ponytail nodded his head, said farewell for the fiftieth time, and Indian Guy was gone.

“I’ve gotta get the hell out of here,” I thought, frantically.  I left my unfinished beer and darted out of the place.  When you’re a lone man at the bar with no friends, the last thing on earth you want is to be stuck with another lone man at the bar with no friends.

So I left.  As I did, I looked back into the bar one last time.  Ponytail was standing there by himself, in the middle of the room, looking quietly at the row of empty bar stools in front of him.


The Friend Prevention Team


I’ve never paid for friends.  Sure, I buy my friends drinks at bars and sometimes when we do dinner together I’ll let my friend eat the last mozzarella stick; I consider these to be kind acts of generosity, and not things that I do to persuade a person into liking me.  My friends are great because they talk to me and give me all sorts of advice for free.  They’re like therapists I don’t have to pay.  And the advice is typically good, like a few years back when my friend Keren advised me to look into online dating.

That’s just what I did – I looked into it.  I made accounts on Plenty of Fish and Ok Cupid.  Plenty of Fish was abandoned immediately after the first message I got, which was from an elderly woman who looked like the ghost of Bette Davis.  Keren advised me to focus and stay on track.  Using Ok Cupid, I eventually met one girl and we dated for about two weeks.  It was a very ho-hum experience, and I didn’t put much effort into Ok Cupid subsequently.  I didn’t send out many messages, and the ones I did send were typically too odd to warrant responses.  (The following is actually an excerpt cut and pasted from a real message I sent to a cute girl who worked in AIDS research: “I read on your profile that you work in a lab doing AIDS research. That’s really interesting. As a young man, I read an article that said there’s an agent in saliva called SLPI that stops the spread of the HIV virus. Since then, I’ve been convinced that SLPI is the key to ending HIV. Once in awhile, I’ll talk about it at dinner parties. So, it would be good to talk with someone who actually knows something on the topic, so I can stop sounding like a total moron, telling everyone to inject spit into their blood.”)

Sometimes I wondered if I would’ve met someone outstanding had I tried harder.  That thought must’ve overtaken me one Saturday night about a month ago, because I decided to try and give online dating another chance.  Cruising the free Internet that I steal from the Samsung building by my apartment, I looked at some Korean dating sites.  After a few seconds of deliberation, I decided I wanted to open an account on Korean Friend Finder.  It seemed to have the most members, and it was in English.  The scary thing, though, is that I would have to pay to open my KFF account.  This was another world, different from the free accounts on Plenty of Fish or Ok Cupid.  It would be like trying to pick up a girl at a bar with a cover charge, as opposed to just finding the drunkest girl at the dive bar hosting dollar beer night.

I studied the options.  There was the Gold Level and the Silver Level.  The Gold was obviously better, although it cost more money.  I wished other elements were offered.  It would be nice to dip my toe in at the Copper Level, or use the site sparingly at the easily affordable Potassium Level.  These choices were not to be found, though, and so I bit the bullet, broke out my Visa card, and went for the Gold.

And that’s when things got complicated.

My Gold Level upgrade on Korean Friend Finder was rejected, and the next morning I got an email from my credit card company.  It was from the “Fraud Prevention Team.”  The email said that a suspicious charge was attempted on my card; there was a phone number in the email and I was instructed to call that number to speak to a representative about it.  I tried emailing instead, but was told it had to be done via phone.  At the same time, I was locked out of my online account with HSBC, and was informed that my credit card would be frozen from future use until I contacted someone at fraud prevention.

Of course I knew what the charge was – the fifty dollar membership to KFF – and I dreaded calling the credit card company.  Finally, I did, and I spoke to a nice girl who was ready to get to the bottom of this mystery.

“It says that a charge was made by a company called Korean Friend Finder,” she said.  “Did you make that charge?”

“Er…um…” I stammered, “…I don’t remember.”  Suddenly I had turned into Ronald Reagan during the Iran Contra Affair, denying any memory of the incident.

“You don’t remember?  Mr. Panara, it was two nights ago.  Think.  Do you remember opening an account on Korean Friend Finder?”

It was humiliating.  “Um…maybe…I was drinking and my memory is a bit fuzzy…”

My response was horrible.  I sounded like an alcoholic loser trying to solicit Korean chicks while blacked out.  The girl from the FPT and I ultimately decided not to cancel the card, but to remove the charge.  I hung up the phone with no pride or Gold membership.

Sitting down at the computer, I knew that my experience with Korean Friend Finder was over.  There was no way I could try again.  I couldn’t imagine having to talk to the Fraud Prevention Team a second time.  I would break down in a fit of anguish.

“Yes!  I did it!  I wanted to find a Korean friend!  I’m so lonely!!!”

In my head I nodded, though, reassured that my credit card is damn secure.  In the future, if I must pay someone for companionship, I will have to find a sweet girl who accepts cash.


Questioning My Homocceptance


There was no way I was going to wear the skirt.  It was Friday night in Bupyeong, and I stood in the corner of Who’s Bar, holding the skirt in a black plastic bag.  The night before I was totally open to the idea; in fact, I even went out of my way to ask a friend to let me borrow a skirt.  Since this was the “No Pants Party,” wearing a skirt seemed like a logical move, sort of like how I would wear a diaper to a “No Underwear Party.”  But in the heat of the moment I couldn’t go through with it.  The visual of my hairy chicken legs descending from the bottom of an otherwise sexy skirt made me shutter.  The skirt would stay in the bag and, despite the theme, the pants would stay on.

“Put on the skirt,” one of my gay friends said to me in an alarmingly serious tone.

“Can’t do it,” I said, defeated.  “I just can’t do it.”

“Fag!” he shouted in my face.  “You’re such a fag!  You need to be more gay.”

I didn’t know how to respond.  “Excuse me – I find that word highly offensive.”

He shook his head and walked away.  Without knowing it, though, he had raised a valid point.  I had been a fag lately when it came to being gay.  Let me try to clear that sentence up.   I consider myself to be a liberal, open minded straight person, especially when it comes to supporting those who play for the other team.  I support gay marriage and have seen an episode of Glee.  However, in the last few months, my homocceptance seems to have gone down.  Homocceptance is a term I invented after determining that there really is no word to act as the opposite of homophobia.  To me, it goes beyond just supporting gay rights – it’s having such a comfort with homosexuality that one is not afraid to be associated with it.  If some meathead jock calls you a “fag,” you shrug because it’s not an insult.  A homoccepting person isn’t afraid to hug another man or own Brokeback Mountain on Blu-ray.

Or wear a skirt.

The skirt, though, isn’t the only example that has sprung up recently.  Last weekend, a female friend of mine asked me to go with her to an area in Itaewon known as “Homo Hill.”  I declined the offer.  Similarly, I’ve had a strange desire lately to read the book Eat. Pray. Love.  Perhaps this is because a lot of expat/backpacker women relate to it, which has led me to the idea of writing a similar book from the male perspective – only mine would be titled Smoke. Drink. Rejection.  It maybe wouldn’t be as uplifting.  Anyways, I picked a copy of Eat. Pray. Love. up off the shelf at a used bookstore but then, inexplicably, could not bring myself to purchase it.  I couldn’t face the cashier.  It was like I was buying a twelve inch dildo or something.  Ashamed of myself, I put Eat. Pray. Love. back on the shelf and bought a book about baseball.

I wonder if being in Korea has something to do with this.  Korea is a funny place.  Gay marriage is illegal, gays in the military are classified as having a “personality disorder,” and homosexuality in general is frowned upon.  At the same time, the men here are really feminine and constantly touching each other.  For a year I worked at an all boys’ public high school, and sometimes it seemed like I was in Greenwich Village in the ‘80s.  In class, boys would sit on each others’ laps and bounce up and down.  Boys walked down the hallway with their arms around each other and would rest their heads on each others’ shoulders.  One time I walked down the hallway and came across two boys “wrestling” on the floor.  They were both laughing.  One had the other pinned down and was spanking him softly.  On his penis.

I wanted to walk up and say, “Dude, you’re spanking the WRONG SIDE.  You’re supposed to spank someone’s backside.  Not their front side, silly!  You’re doing a reverse spank!  Flip him over and spank him the way a boy is supposed to be spanked!”

Instead I just casually looked at them and kept walking.  Out in public, I’m constantly surrounded by girly guys in makeup and skinny jeans.  It seems like two-thirds of the men in Korea spend more time getting ready to go out than Rupaul.  (On a sidenote, I think there should be some kind of de facto law that Rupaul must never, ever, be seen NOT in drag.  It’s worse than Kiss without makeup.)  I look at celebrities like G-Dragon and the men on the sign for the Red Model Bar and I’m bewildered.

They must ALL be gay, I say to myself.  But they can’t be.  Or it shouldn’t matter.  What does it matter?  Who am I, Jerry Fallwell?  It’s cool, it’s cool.  Maybe I wouldn’t look that bad in a skirt.

Life can get confusing for a homoccepting man.  Then again, maybe I just want to be homoccepting and I haven’t fully arrived yet.  I mean, I was raised by a father who told him I had to beat him at arm wrestling to be a “real man” and who wouldn’t let me use shampoo with conditioner because it’s “for girls.”  So I have a lot of making up to do.  One day, I’ll have my coming out party.  G-Dragon and I will emerge from the closet together, arm in arm, and make no announcement whatsoever.  We’ll just let people think.


Lulu Battles Hipsters in Hongdae and Suffers a Crushing Defeat


“I’m not watching Game of Thrones,” I told my friend Trish.  “And you know why?  I’m not watching specifically because too many hipsters watch it.”

“That’s bullshit,” Trish said, “and that attitude is, like, super hipster.”

I tried to explain to her that it’s not.  At 33 years of age, I’ve come to terms with my taste in movies, music, books, and other things.  To Trish – and to other friends in the past – I really have no actual taste.  To them, I more or less force myself into liking things out of spite and out of a need to be different.  The simple facts are these: 1) when too many people (especially if they’re hipsters) like something, it deflates it for me and 2) there’s nothing as exciting as finding something old and obscure that’s really good.  It’s thrilling.  To research and read and then stumble upon a great and unknown movie from the late sixties brings me a joy I can barely contain.  Or to listen to countless ‘70s Billboard Chart hits until I find one I can’t stop singing along to…I get that Christmas morning feeling.  Like the way George W. Bush would’ve felt if he found WMDs.

Trish shakes her head at all this.  She’s appalled by the idea that I, somehow, won’t be able to enjoy Game of Thrones, regardless of how good it is, because too many people who wear beanies in coffee shops while listening to Belle and Sebastian on their Ipods are blogging about it.  Trish also doesn’t understand my complete and utter hatred for hipsters, in large part because she thinks that I am one myself.  Similarly, I sometimes accuse her of being one.  It’s sort of like a horror movie where a bunch of people are trapped together, knowing one of them is the killer, and they all start pointing fingers at each other.  One of us is the hipster.  I argue that it can’t be the person who doesn’t watch Game of Thrones.  She argues that it must be the person who has put so much thought into not watching it.

What Trish doesn’t appreciate is how much absolute crap I have to wade through in order to find something that excites me.  I mean, it’s not like I get thrilled about every movie made in the sixties or seventies.  For each gem like Daisies or The Incident, there are thirty or forty mediocre films, often staring David Niven or Lee Remick, that I have to sit through.  I work for the things I like.  I labor for my tastes.  It’s much more strenuous, I feel, than waiting fifteen minutes for Breaking Bad to download.

All of this is to say, Trish would not have understood the amazing experience I had at Club FF in Hongdae last Saturday night.  Hongdae is a trendy area of Seoul, filled with college students, where the nightlife is a bit better than most places.  There are a lot of clubs and bars, including Club FF, which sometimes has live bands and often plays rock and roll music (as opposed to most clubs, which play a grating mix of Kpop and dance music).  Out for a friend’s going away party, I met a girl named Amanda.  Somehow we got to talking about music.  I asked her who her favorites groups were.

“I really like the Del Vikings,” she said, and I almost floated away I was so happy.  I LOVE the Del Vikings, and have never met anyone else who felt the same way.  Soon we were talking about Dr. John, and how great the band Wings was, and how Paul McCartney was so much better than John Lennon.  This was, obviously, a girl after my…well…maybe not after my heart…but certainly after the music in it.

“Do you like Lobo?” she asked.

Mid ‘90s grunge music blasted across the dance floor in FF.  The place was fairly crowded and people shouted the words to Nirvana songs.  “Lobo?” I said, thinking.  “Didn’t Lobo do ‘To Sir, With Love’?”

“No,” she said, correcting me.  “That’s Lulu.  Lobo did ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.’”

“Oh,” I said, elated to be corrected.  “I don’t know that song too well.  I really like ‘To Sir, With Love’ though.”

“I love that song,” she said, and for the next hour we tried our best to sing it.  With Love Shack blasting from the speakers, it was difficult to remember the words to our song.  Then the B-52s were gone and Morrissey was yodeling his way through William, It Was Really Nothing.  Remembering Lulu’s one hit was proving to be a rather difficult task.

“Those school girl days,” I tried, “of painting nails…er…How do you thank someone who has taken you from nails to perfume…”

I kept sticking nails in every stanza.  Amanda was no better.  “Those school girl days, of painting nails and…la la la, la la…”

We decided we could sing it if we heard it, and so Amanda rushed up to the DJ booth to request it.  About an hour later, our eyes widened as the opening strings to To Sir, With Love filled Club FF.

“Oh my God!” we shouted.  “He’s actually playing it!”

Our excitement was short lived.  The crowd, energetically dancing to Green Day, MGMT, and Joy Division, suddenly went still.  Lulu had stopped them mid-dance step.

And then, in mass exodus, they started leaving.

“Oh no,” I said.  “Lulu’s clearing the place out!”  The two and a half minutes of To Sir, With Love, seemed to last a lifetime.  The way people were leaving, it was as though somebody had opened fire on the dance floor.  Lulu had, in essence, Columbined Club FF.

The song still dragging on, the DJ, in a panic, switched to ABC by The Jackson Five.  “Thank God it’s over!” an embarrassed Amanda exclaimed.

Like religion, political affiliation, and race, our preferences in movies and music unite and divide us.  I think Trish would’ve left during Lulu.  That doesn’t make her a bad person.  Hipsters are sort of like Baptists – they’ve broken from the traditional, and yet there are still enough of them to be a significant group.  Amanda and I, in Club FF, were like Mormons, weird and apart and so confident in our own beliefs we tried to infect everyone else with them.  And they all ran away, just like I used to when a Mormon would approach me on the streets of Rochester and try to give me a pamphlet about the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

The few people remaining in Club FF danced to The Jackson Five.  I turned to Amanda.  “Crayons,” I said, referring to the song lyrics.  “How did I forget crayons?”