You Hamtalkin’ To Me???


This past Easter, my sister gave birth to a tiny little baby girl, making me an uncle for the second time.  Everyone was pretty happy about it – I mean they were happy that my sister had another baby, not for me becoming an uncle again. Really, becoming an uncle takes absolutely no effort.  It’s not like I assisted in the child birth or even encouraged her to get pregnant.  No, I sat around my apartment washing dishes and suddenly I was an uncle.  That’s pretty dope.  I wish other things worked that way.  For example, if I could sit around and do nothing and suddenly become an astronaut or a bass player, I feel that my life would be more interesting.

Now this guy, he was one wicked good uncle.

Being a “good” uncle is a whole different story.  In truth, I’m a pretty piss poor one.  My oldest niece is about 2 1/2 years old (which makes her Korean age 17, because, if I’m not mistaken, they calculate their ages the same way dogs do), and I haven’t even met her yet.  I would like to be able to say that I was in Korea the whole time, because that would make for a decent excuse.  The problem is, I wasn’t.  For the first year of my niece Abilene’s life, I was bummed out and depressed in Charlotte, living in an empty room and staying pretty focused on other important things, such as working on my OkCupid profile and finishing The Wire.  Now it’s 2 1/2 years later; I’m in Korea, Abilene has a sister, and Stringer Bell is apparently fighting aliens with Charlize Theron.

Seeing that becoming an uncle takes no real skill or dedication, one would think that being a decent uncle would consist of continuing along that same path.  Au contraire, my friends.  To be a good uncle, one has to do things.  I have no idea what these things are, but I would guess sending something on birthdays or holidays would be a good start.  So around Christmas time, I went and got some gifts to send.  I bought a toy lizard and a hat that looks like a sheep and an ear hoodie.  I also bought a toy called “Hamtalking.”  Yes, Hamtalking.  Despite what you may first think, it has nothing to do with food.  It is not a pork product that talks.  If the Koreans decided to make a toy with that as its premise, given their tastes, they would probably make a chatty can of Spam instead.

No, Hamtalking is a little toy hamster that speaks.  On the box, the hamster is pictured with a girl and they appear to be saying things in Korean.  That excited me.  How awesome would it be to send something that spoke in a different language? What a nice cultural learning moment it would be.  Sure, maybe she would be happier with a Cabbage Patch Kid (they’re still popular, right?), but later in life she’d realize that a Hangul speaking rodent is much cooler.

Before I realized it, February rolled around and I hadn’t mailed the Christmas presents yet.  In all honesty, it was mostly because my anxiety has gone through the roof and I didn’t feel capable of dealing with the Korean post office. Anyways, a Korean friend came over to my apartment to visit, and she saw Hamtalking sitting there.  I told her about my niece and how I wanted to get her a present that spoke another language.

“It doesn’t speak Korean,” she said.  “It has a recorder inside of it, and it repeats whatever you say.”

“Shit!” I moaned.  “Really?  I get it.  It’s speaking Korean on the box because it’s conversing with a Korean girl.”

Hello. It's nice to meet you.

“Exactly,” she said, and then, in a moment of inspiration, she came up with a brilliant suggestion.  “Hey!  Why don’t you take the hamster out of the box, talk into it, and record a message for Abilene.  Then you can mail it to her and she can hear your voice.”

“It would be almost like meeting her!” I exclaimed.  “I can say hello and everything and it’ll be just like introducing myself…only through a hamster.”

I thought it was brilliant.  Granted, there was some risk involved.  I realized that this would be an unorthodox move and might lead to some confusion.  I pictured my sister walking up to Abilene and holding out the hamster in front of her, “Here, Abilene…it’s your uncle.”

She would look at it, confounded, as my sister played my recorded message.  “Hi Abilene,” it would say, and then she would start freaking out.  “Ahh!  Kill it!  Kill it!”

My sister would have to calm the hysterical girl down.  Then, years later, when I would finally meet her, I’d shake her little hand and say, “Hi Abilene,” and the sound of my voice would instantly give her a flashback to the horrifying talking animal.  She’d start screaming and scratching at my face, baffled by my shape-shifting and assuming that it took me so long to meet her because I was running in a wheel.

As it turned out, Hamtalking doesn’t work very well and I wasn’t able to record a message to my satisfaction.  In addition, my girlfriend has pointed out that the Christmas presents, currently going on five months tardy, kind of suck.  A toy lizard?  A sheep hat?  An earhoodie?  She and I are going to the store today to pick up some things that will hopefully be more in line with a little girl’s tastes.

I figure I can afford to be a bit eccentric because I’m an uncle.  Isn’t that how uncles are supposed to be?  Besides, it’s not like uncles get any prepping for the role. There’s no training at all.  It’s not anything like becoming an astronaut, or, for that matter, a pet hamster.


The Intelligence Theory of Weight Gain


About a month ago, I saw something out on the street that made me stop in my tracks.  My heart skipped a beat and I had a massive flashback to America.  Actually, my heart didn’t skip a beat – that’s just a phrase.  Don’t worry.  My health is good – no heart problems.  The same can’t be said for the person I saw, though, and as I write the reveal, my description of just what I saw that shook me so, I can’t help but feel a little silly.

There’s no nice way to put this: I saw a very, very fat person.

Now, this might not strike you as being anything out of the ordinary.  Three years ago, I would’ve agreed.  Seeing an overweight person on the streets of North Carolina was as common as seeing clouds in the Charlotte sky or penis enlargement messages in my email’s spam folder.  It happened with great frequency.  There really were a good amount of overweight folks in North Carolina.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  Those people ate chicken biscuits with gravy for breakfast.  In part, I blame the nice weather.  It encourages too many cook outs.  On spring days in Charlotte, the air would smell of hot dogs and charcoal and you could just feel the city getting love handles.  There are fast food restaurants every ten feet or so, and every time a fish dies in the South, there’s an 82% chance that it will be fried and not baked (note: this statistic is based on made up data).

Here in South Korea, no one is obese.  That’s why I was so surprised to run across somebody of this magnitude.  You just don’t see it a lot.  I wondered how it happened.  In two years, I’ve seen exactly one seriously, critically obese Korean person.  What did this person do?  I wondered if she (it was a female) had lived abroad.  That would explain it.  Maybe she weighed 105 lbs. and then went to study English in Alabama.  I also thought that, in a way, this girl was the most rebellious Korean person I’d come across.  It was as if she said to herself, “Fuck my culture.  Fuck the standard Korean diet, and fuck the way girls are supposed to be twigs here.  I don’t give a shit, I’m not going to eat kimchi, I don’t care that my parents try to lock me in the attic out of shame, and if I have to import all my clothes from the USA, I’m okay with that.  I like Lane Bryant’s plus size collection.”

In short, I was picking up what she was putting down.  What a rock star.

She also reminded me of my ongoing battle to gain weight.  I’ve been eating like a pig lately and, still, I can’t seem to crack 140 lbs.  My girlfriend comes over and cooks me a big plate of eggs and bacon at ten o’clock at night two or three times a week, and, seemingly, my body dissolves it into nothing.  I’m also drinking two Mass XXX shakes a day.  Whatever weight I gain seems to go straight to my mosums.

“You have stomach of bean,” my girlfriend said one night when we were out at a meat buffet.

“Stomach of bean?  What does that mean?”

“I mean,” she said, “your stomach is the size of a bean.  If you eat one bean, you’ll be full.”

“That’s not true,” I shot back, the smoke from the meat filling the air between us. “I did an experiment one night where I dropped beans down my throat, and it actually took 34 beans to stuff me.”

Meat buffets are something I’ve never seen outside of Korea.  They’re kind of disgusting, and I can’t say that I really enjoy them.  Basically, you sit at a table with a grill in the center.  There’s a long counter in the front of the restaurant that has loads of raw pork and beef and chicken, and you take as much as you can eat and grill it up.  My girlfriend kept bringing me strips of bacon (Korean “bacon” is super thick and more like a pork chop) and cuts of beef.  I forced down as much as I could until I felt like I was about to vomit up a bunch of farm animals.

My girlfriend shook her head.  “Bean,” she muttered.

Such a thin line between sexy and "Hey Daddy! I'll suck yo' dick for a burger!"

Back at my apartment, she said to me, “You can’t gain weight because you’re too smart.  You think about many things and that makes you lose weight.”

“Baby, I don’t know if thinking makes a person lose weight.”

“It does,” she said.  “You think about things, so you’re not thinking about food.  People who eat too much think about food a lot.”

To me, my girlfriend’s body is perfect.  Stellar.  But, since she is Korean and weighs more than a large hamster, she considers herself to be fat.  For women in Korea, thinness is not just required, it’s expected.  One time, I went on a Korean dating site to look at the girls and thought for a second that I’d accidentally typed in the URL for Feed the Starving Children.

My girlfriend continued.  “If you think about food, then you eat more food, and then all you can do is sit and think about eating.”

“Ah, it’s a cycle.”

“You are smart and don’t think about food.  That’s why you’re skinny.”

I laughed and hugged her, because I thought her idea was cute.  But later, it occurred to me that maybe she was actually onto something.  I mean, can you think of any recognized geniuses who were obese?  Socrates was pretty buff; Wittgenstein was in good shape; Sherlock Holmes worked out regularly from what I understand.  It looks like Da Vinci could’ve shed a few pounds, but it’s tough to say for sure because he dressed big.  Perhaps education and an emphasis on intelligence are the keys to solving my country’s weight issue.  Personally, intelligence has nothing to do with me being skinny – metabolism is more to blame.  For others, though, maybe a healthy mind does indeed lead to a healthy body.  Koreans study all day and night and they are skinny.  For ages we’ve believed their small frames were the product of their Asian genes, but maybe there’s more to it than that.  It could be that they’re little and tiny because they like math.

Albert Einstein’s brain weighed 2 ½ pounds at the time of his death.  I’m not sure if that means anything, although I’m happy to say that it qualifies as one of the few things in the world I can lift.  The Internet doesn’t say how heavy the rest of his body was.  It must’ve been okay, I think, or else, instead of relativity, he might’ve come up with something like E = MC Donald’s.


I Can Say ‘Hello’ in a Variety of Ways, But I Choose to Say Nothing


A person never feels good being called into the manager’s office.  When I was a much younger man, jaded and virginal, I interviewed for a promotion at the non-profit agency where I worked, and was subsequently summoned to speak to my boss, Holly.  It’s important to point out that, although this was an internal promotion, my boss had little to do with the selection process.  The people above her at the “downtown office” did the interview and would be in charge of making the selection.  If I had a business, I would absolutely make sure there was an office ‘downtown.’  It wouldn’t even matter what would actually transpire in the office; I’d only want the ability, given the right opportunity, to refer to the ‘downtown office’ in a voice that implied great importance.

“Will we be getting a raise this year?” my employees would ask.

“My friends, I’m going to have to ask the people at the downtown office about that,” I’d say, knowing full well that the downtown office was really an empty room.

But I digress.  Holly wanted to talk to me about an important matter.  She, it seemed, was not entirely comfortable with the idea that I would be given a promotion.  “Do you think you have the people skills needed to supervise other employees?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I like people.”

Something was bothering her.  “It’s just…I don’t know…when I pass you in the hallway, you never say ‘hello.’”

Her face intimated that she took this slight very seriously.  “Well, I do,” I said.  “I mean, technically I don’t say the word ‘hello’ itself, but I give a nod.  A hello nod.”

“A nod?”

“Yeah, a nod.”

“Hmm…I don’t pick up a nod.”

“There’s definitely a nod, like this,” I said, and then I flicked my chin at her in a minute upward motion.

“I’m going to be honest,” she said.  “It looks like you’re the front runner for the promotion.  If you get it, I’m going to want you to say ‘hello’ to people…instead of that…nod.”

“I can do that,” I said.  And then later I got the promotion and continued to do my little nod and only said ‘hello’ if Holy was in the vicinity.

Could start a new trend in breast bows.

I relate this story because, lately, I’ve been contemplating the importance of the ‘office hello.’  You know what I mean.  You walk into work.  Clearly, you don’t want to be there.  These are the first moments of your work day – your arrival time.  Guess who’s already there, in the building?  Coworkers (cause they get there early/on time).  How important, really, is the ‘hello’ they give you?  For my whole life, I never thought the ‘hello’ meant anything, and was actually a little annoyed by it.  Lately, however, my tune has changed.  Call it the remix.  The ‘office hello’ remix.  With guest appearances by Hello Kitty and Todd Rundgren.

Right back at cha, Cruise! Hey, when's Risky Business 2 coming out?

Last year I worked at a public school in Korea.  Every day I would walk into the office, where there were about twenty teachers, and nobody would raise their head from their work or even look in my direction.  There were no hellos, head nods, or waves.  Not in Korean or English or Tagalog or any language.  No ‘Wassup!?!’ or ‘How’s it hanging?’ or ‘What’s shakin, bacon?’  None of that.  Not a smile or a peace sign or a high five or that cool thing where you take both of your index fingers and point at the person.

Instead, I entered as if I was Kevin Bacon (‘What’s shakin, Kevin Bacon?!’) in the movie Hollow Man.  Invisible and evil.  I wondered if my invisibility would enable me to sneak excessive coffee or spy on Elisabeth Shue.  To any extent, when you walk into the room and not a single person acknowledges your presence, it’s a bit of a bummer.

“That’s a Korean thing,” every Korean I talked to would tell me.  “We don’t really need to say hello.”

“Gosh dang it,” I said, using slang as I often do, “I dig a good hello.  I didn’t realize it when it was there, but now that it’s absent, I miss it.  Sort of like Hot Pockets.”

I would kill for a Hot Pocket.  I mean, I wouldn’t kill myself.  That’s silly.  Or a friend, or an animal, or anybody else if it meant I had to go to jail.  So let me rephrase.  I would kill a human stranger for a Hot Pocket, as long as it meant no prison time.  That is how badly I miss Hot Pockets.

Again, I fear I’ve gotten off point.  I was terribly unhappy at that public school, where there were no hellos.  At the same time, I was pretty happy and content at the non-profit agency, where people typically said ‘hey’ to each other, by way of words or head nod.  Perhaps one could gauge the entire worth of a job by the quality of its hello.  That is my insight into today’s working world.  Hopefully, the people at the downtown office will agree.


On Certain Nights We’re Almost There, Mr. Kerouac


The Real Brian Holman didn’t last very long, and neither did Jack Kerouac.  An injury cut Holman’s career as a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners short; Kerouac died at 47.  When I was a kid, I used to dream about pitching in the big leagues like Brian Holman, and then when I went to college, I dreamed that I would be a writer and a beatnik like Jack Kerouac.  I’ve had limited success on both of these accounts.  My baseball career came to a close in 1992, one season into the Pony League for boys 14-17 years old.  I didn’t pitch an inning that year and I had exactly zero hits.  In my last at bat ever, I was hit in the head.

So, in some respects, I’ve come closer to actualizing the Kerouac persona.  I’ve published some stories and poems and I write a blog.  I have lots of disks with writing on them, including a novel that’s unreadable and will never get published.  I smoke a lot of cigarettes and I bounce around different places in the world.  Last night I drank by myself and listened to Bert Kaempfert’s Orchestra play “Wonderland By Night.”  In that moment, between sips of beer and after the horn made that weird crescendo that opens “Wonderland,” well, that’s when the guy I want to be seemed real and present.  I was an artist then, a hip bastard drinking and smoking in a strange little corner of South Korea, jotting down ideas for novels and acing the heck out of Sporcle quizzes on black and white movies.

Of course, when I woke up, it was back to the real me.  I’m not an artist.  I’m a teacher.  I guess I can live with that.  As I opened the window to try to get the smell of smoke out of my room, sweeping up the ash and the gum wrappers from the floor, I didn’t feel hip anymore.  I felt tired and lonely and old.  Maybe later in the week I’d glance at the stuff I wrote down.  Maybe I wouldn’t.  I’d have too many classes to teach, and too much baseball to watch.


Back in college, I thought I could define myself very neatly.  I’d gone to film school and then when they kicked me out I went to an arts college to study writing.  I drank like a fish and read everything I could get my hands on.  Furthermore, I had a ponytail.  Oh, and I dressed in all black.  In my own head, I couldn’t have been cooler.  I’d met Elvis Costello and my poetry professor was Hettie Jones, who was a poet from the actual Beat Generation and hung out with Ginnsberg and Kerouac.  I had my self-image pretty much developed.  True, I hadn’t published anything and nobody else thought I was cool, but those were mere details.  Success and recognition were things that were supposed to happen after college.

There was one thing that didn’t fit in with the rest of the role I was playing, though, a part of my persona that stuck out like a sore pinkie finger (I would’ve said ‘thumb,’ but that’s clichéd).  It was only beginning to blossom then, and in the next decade it would grow out of control, like my anxiety when I try to talk to pretty girls or police officers.

I’m referring to my obsession with baseball and, more specifically, fantasy baseball.  Currently, I spend at least 5 hours a day watching baseball, reading articles about baseball, or listening to baseball podcasts.  Every night I wake up at 2 in the morning so I can watch the afternoon games in the US (I go back to sleep at 5 and then wake up again at 9 so I can watch the night games).  Last week, I made love to my girlfriend and then literally rolled off her and immediately turned on the Tampa Bay/Boston game.  I was dying to see Matt Moore’s first start of the season.  After seeing the expression on my girl’s face, I knew I had to turn the game off, although, for a moment, I considered choosing the rookie lefty over her.

Being a complete baseball nerd has been my hidden source of shame for years.  That’s why I was ecstatic a few years ago when The NY Times published an article saying that Jack Kerouac, Sal Paradise himself, also had an obsession with fantasy baseball.  My heart leapt.  It turns out Kerouac used to have his own make believe baseball league.  He created teams and filled their rosters with made up players.  For their games, he simulated everything by hitting a marble with a toothpick.  Yes, that’s right, cooler-than-thou Jack Kerouac spent untold amounts of time whacking a marble with a toothpick and writing down what happened.  When he got older, he ditched the marble in favor of a card game he invented.  All this he did in secrecy.  He wrote articles about his baseball league as if it was real, talking about player performance and even inventing contract disputes.  He never told Ginnsberg or Ferlinghetti or Corso about any of this and it only came to light about fifty years after his death.

Scorecards from Kerouac's fantasy league.

Perhaps the reason why I found this so exciting is because I used to do almost the exact same thing myself when I was a kid.  I had my own make believe baseball league too.  I created a system using dice to simulate the games.  Instead of making up players, I used my baseball cards.  At the start of the season, I had a draft, managing all the teams myself, where I took players using whatever Tops, Score, or Upper Deck cards I happened to own.  Once the teams were set, they started playing.  I had a notebook where I’d jot down the results and keep the standings.  I never told a soul about it, just like Kerouac.  It was my own special league, and only I knew about it.

My baseball card league would eventually lead to other things, like my eventual fascination with baseball statistics and fantasy baseball.  It also led to a memorable night almost 25 years ago, when my illusions grew up and I realized that so much of life, as funny and fickle as it is, revolves around the slender discord between fantasy and reality.


In 1989, the Seattle Mariners traded their ace pitcher, Mark Langston, to the Montreal Expos for two young pitching prospects.  One of them was named Brian Holman.  The other was named Randy Johnson.  This trade is well known because it brought Johnson to the Mariners, where he would become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history.  Holman’s career didn’t pan out that way.  He pitched two seasons and retired in 1991.

To me, Brian Holman was much more important than that.  In my make believe league, Holman had somehow become the best pitcher in all of baseball.  I had a Holman baseball card – a 1989 Donruss card from when Holman was with the Expos.  There’s really no way to mirror reality when one is running a league where the results are based on the numbers on some dice.  Dice don’t know that Jose Canseco is supposed to be better than Billy Ripkin, or that Mark Langston is supposed to be better than Brian Holman.  By coincidence, or due to dumb luck, the dice just really loved Brian Holman.  Any time I had him pitch, he would blow away his opposition.  He was, by a good margin, the best pitcher in the little world that existed in my bedroom.  I would get excited when Holman’s turn in the rotation came around, and time after the time the dice proved that Holman was a star.

Then, on April 20th, 1990, something coincidental happened.  I was 11 years old at the time.  It was a Friday night, and I was up later than I was usually allowed to be.  I was in my bedroom when my father came and got me.

“Come out here!” he said, full of energy.  “Some guy’s throwing a perfect game!”

It was the 8th inning of a game between the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners.  The pitcher for the Mariners had not allowed a single hit or walk.  He had retired all 21 batters he’d faced.  At that point in time, there were only 14 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball.  The Mariner pitcher was trying to become the 15th person since baseball began around 1869 to do this, to retire all 27 batters he faced in perfect order.  Who was the pitcher?  It was none other than the Real Brian Holman.

In stark contrast to my bedroom league, Holman was, in reality, a nobody.  He was unknown, a talented kid who was trying to make a name for himself.  I personally had never seen him outside of the picture on that baseball card.

Holman cruised through the 8th.  “Jesus,” my father said, pacing around the room nervously, “he might do it!”  To begin the 9th inning, Holman struck out pinch hitter Felix Jose.  Walt Weiss was next and Holman got him to ground out to second.

It was at that time that my mind started going.  Could it be that fantasy and reality sometimes cross paths?  It was as though my league had augured this; had somehow predicted that it would happen.  Maybe Brian Holman really would become a super star.  Maybe it was all possible, all of it.  Maybe I could saturate my world with dreams, like I was building something, and it would look just like I’d seen it before.  Like I’d made it myself.

All the Real Brian Holman needed was one more out.  In all my years of being a sports fan, I’ve never wanted anything more than for Holman to do it.  The A’s sent up Ken Phelps to pinch hit.  Phelps was an aging left handed power bat, someone who had been around a long time.  Holman wound up and threw a fastball.  Phelps hammered it, launching it deep into right field.  To this day, I can still picture the trajectory of the ball off Phelps’ bat.  The right fielder didn’t even move.  The ball was gone.  The perfect game was no more.

The crowd in Oakland erupted.  Holman had failed.  With one pitch, he’d gone back to being a nobody.

“What a bum!” my father shouted.  “He grooved it right over the plate!  Right over the plate!  He choked!  I could’ve hit that pitch!”

I felt sad.  Ashamed for some reason.  Beat.  Phelps trotted around the bases.  It would be the last home run of his career.  It was fitting, I guess.  Old men always have a way of shitting all over the great ambitions of young ones.

The Real Brian Holman struck out Ricky Henderson to end the game.  He would pitch another year before his arm went out on him and he was forced to retire.  I watched an interview with him on YouTube where he talked about the night he almost made history.  He said he couldn’t sleep, and at 4 in the morning he screamed as loud as he could because he knew he would never come that close again.

You don’t have to be asleep to wake up from a dream.  I’m not sure how the Fantasy Brian Holman did after that.  If my memory is correct, my league didn’t go on much longer.  My heart wasn’t in it anymore, and the league folded.

I actually feel bad for writing that Brian Holman became a “nobody.”  He didn’t.  In reality, he became a manager at a consulting firm and a motivational speaker.  It sounds like life has been more than okay for him.

Still, I wonder how he sees himself.  In a shirt and tie, working in an office, or on the pitcher’s mound, back in 1990, one out away from being perfect.


If It Wasn’t For My Quality Instincts, I Would’ve Bashed His Head In


Around 6 AM Saturday morning, I left the hospital and bought a pack of cigarettes so I could smoke while I waited for the bus.  Late night hospital trips are never fun.  Unless one is desperately looking for catharsis, being around the folks in an emergency room during the wee hours of the morning is not a great scene.  In the room where they brought my friend DL, there were two drunks passed out on hospital beds and another guy who looked liked he just fell off a mountain and hit every rock on his way down.  He was covered in dry blood and bruises and the hospital staff had to hold his legs while they gave him a shot.  Comparatively, DL was in wonderful shape.  He only needed a few stitches.  This other guy, from the looks of him, needed a full body cast or, perhaps, cyborg organ and limb replacements a la Robocop.

My instincts tell me to feel bad for people who are in desperate need of medical attention, but at that time of night, it’s also a little bit hard not to feel as though the person probably in some way contributed to his or her own demise.  I mean, random accidents generally don’t happen at 4 in the morning.  These people were probably somewhere they’d be better off avoiding, doing something that was, at worst, self-destructive, or, at best, a little on the dumb side.  These are the people who drank or fought or themselves off bridges and into their hospital beds.  They’d likely arrived alone and would leave alone, and would probably end up alone in the same hospital bed a few months later as though their life was a sitcom having a rerun.

How did we end up there?  Why was my friend waiting to get stitches next to his left eye, where there was a big gash that wouldn’t stop bleeding?  One could say it was because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or, like “Cool Hand Luke,” because there had been a failure to communicate.  In the grand scheme of things, it was really because some people seem to fashion their fate to lead to regrettable outbursts, the same way an alcoholic makes the choice to drink or a pyromaniac decides to buy a lighter.

Let me explain how it happened.  I went out to Bupyeong to go drinking with friends.  At Who’s Bar I saw lots of people I haven’t seen in a while and tried to get out of my little sickness funk by drinking lots of whisky.  After a few hours of socializing, I headed over to N’s Pub with Kent and DL.  There, we drank beer, smoked cigarettes and talked about things.  I told them about how my marriage fell apart.  We discussed how hard it is to be in a relationship and not wonder if there’s someone better out there.  And then we talked about baseball.  Glorious baseball.  About the Red Sox and instant replay and the differences between a roto and a head-to-head fantasy league.  We’d been going on about baseball for hours when suddenly the fight broke out.

It seemed to come out of nowhere.  The bar was basically empty, just us and a table of Korean guys.  We had barely noticed they were there.  Then suddenly DL and the Korean guys were yelling at each other, as though the night was a movie and we’d cut from the baseball conversation to an entirely different scene.  One of the Korean dudes – a guy wearing a suit and tie – was threatening to hit DL with an empty bottle of liquor.  I can’t emphasize enough how quickly and randomly it began.  One minute baseball, the next minute everybody is screaming and yelling and the Koreans are throwing things at us.  I don’t remember exactly what they threw first.  Before I could really grasp what was going on, DL and the Well Dressed Korean were punching each other on the floor.  Kent and I found ourselves sort of holding back the other Koreans while the bar staff tried to break things up.  I remember a little guy with glasses cursing and giving me the finger.  I stood there and stared at him.

Things had gotten ugly.  The Koreans threw chairs.  They also threw the ice bucket their bottle of liquor came in.  The dust settled, as it always seems to, and when it did, DL had blood on his face and everybody was confused as hell.

Bit by bit, the picture developed itself.  The Koreans didn’t speak English.  They heard us swearing and thought we were talking about Korean girls.  Degrading them.  They wouldn’t stand for it.  Of course, as it was, we were talking about rotisserie fantasy baseball.  Anyways, they began impersonating us and giving our table the middle finger.  Kent and I were oblivious.  DL noticed.  He said something.  They said something back.  They stood up.  He stood up.  And that’s how it happened.

Afterwards, the bar staff seemed to be rather unimpressed with their people (we were in a Korean run bar).  I believe they explained to them, in a scolding kind of way, that we weren’t talking about Korean girls at all.  This caused Well Dressed Korean to suddenly become the most apologetic son-of-a-bitch on the face of the planet.  He kept bowing and saying “I sorry” over and over again.  It went on forever.  Or maybe twenty minutes.  At the time, it felt like he would never leave.

“I sorry, I sorry,” he said again, bowing, shaking our hands.  His tie was loose around his neck.  He’d thrown the bucket into DL’s face and caused the big cut.  DL held a napkin against it so it wouldn’t bleed.

It would be easy to say that this all was a bizarre bit of culture clash and miscommunication.  A peachy attitude towards the world would probably influence someone to say that if we could only have understood each other, spoken the same language, none of this would’ve happened and everybody would’ve gotten along like chums.

I don’t believe that to be the case, though.  There are times when a person’s instincts take over and tell them what to do, and I believe that it was at this time that the real distinctions between us and them became apparent.  In the heat of the moment, those guys threw basically everything they could get their hands on at DL.  They picked up chairs and hurled them at him.  They gave us the finger and screamed and shouted.  They were perfectly willing, as it was, to hurt someone as badly as possible.  But through all of this, not once did my brain go, “Hey, Bill, go get a pool stick and club someone with it.  Or throw your beer glass.  Or hit someone with an ash tray.”  Never.  Granted, I thought about that afterwards; at the time, however, none of it occurred to me.

That’s an instinctual difference, my friend.  Not a cultural one.  There are people all over this world like these guys, people who go for the chair in the middle of the fight, who legitimize paranoia, who think the folks at the table a few feet away are always saying something awful about them, who believe they are constantly being challenged, who always feel threatened, who carry guns to ‘protect themselves,’ who don’t exactly plan to shoot but end up doing it anyhow, who are too proud to run, who delude themselves with violent fantasies of heroics, who bow and apologize afterwards but will likely do it again, who are afraid, who cast themselves as victims, who end up in hospitals or police stations at six in the morning, having to explain it all and not really knowing how to.

Ah well.  It wasn’t really that big of a deal.  The police weren’t called and we were laughing in the cab on the way to the hospital.  Whatever.  A decent story and a few stitches.

In the history of our planet, not really wanting to fight has led to a whole lot worse.


What, Do You Eat Burgers in a Barn?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It means, close the door, Sis.”

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

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

“I’ve never heard that in my life.”

“Trust me, it’s a common expression.”

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

“Yeah, it smells of manure.”


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

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

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

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

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

Not five minutes later, the doors were open again.

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

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

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

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