Snapshots of the Boryeong Mud Festival


It’s 8:45, Friday night, and I will be on a bus for the next three hours. The bus will carry me and a group of 50 other people down to Boryeong, where one of South Korea’s most popular festivals starts the next day. This is the “Boryeong Mud Festival,” a two week extravaganza based around the idea that it is fun to cover oneself in mud. That it’s fun to jump in mud, play in mud, and throw mud in your friends’ faces. Riding the bus, relaxing, I imagine what might happen over the course of the next two days. I’ve brought my camera with me. I’m, perhaps pathetically, thinking about the blog post I’ll write about it. It’ll have pictures and hilarious stories. Obviously. Granted, I don’t know what those hilarious stories will be, but I’m confident they will happen, organically, like how mud just sort of happens. One doesn’t have to force mud. Sand gets wet, and the magic happens. I’m positive my blog about the festival will be a real winner. What should I name it? I’m thinking perhaps “My Name is Mud,” after the Primus song. No, why would I do that? I don’t even like Primus. What about “Mud Gets in Your Eyes”? Sort of a play on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Again, I don’t like it. Coming up with the title is going to be difficult. I will wait for it, like a meal ordered at a restaurant, to come to me.


Last year, I remember talking to my friend Toronto. “You going to the Mud Festival?” I asked him. “No man,” Toronto said. “I’m 30. Why would I want to roll around in mud?” It was a damn good question. “You’re right,” I said. “I’m not going either. We’ve gotten too old for this shit.” There’s nothing more embarrassing than middle-aged men rolling around in mud. I didn’t go, and spent the weekend at a Buddhist temple instead. I felt it was a mature decision. But this year my friend included me in on a modestly priced excursion down, so I figured what the hell, I would roll around in the mud. I’ve heard it’s good for the skin.

I wouldn’t be showing immaturity by going. I would simply be trying to get properly exfoliated.


7:30 AM Saturday morning, I’m sitting on a picnic table drinking beer and smoking skinny Korean cigarettes. I’ve been drinking and smoking all night long. The sun is up and I’ve purchased a small carton of milk to help settle my stomach. There are four other guys who have stayed up all night drinking as well. One of them is a US soldier. He spent some time in Afghanistan and now he’s here, stationed in South Korea. We talk about war and girls, and what he’ll do after his time in the service is over. Most of all, we talk about North Korea. He says they tried to launch a rocket at the USA, and that everyone in the military knows about it but the media was stopped from reporting it. I nod although I don’t believe him. He’s probably right and there are secret rockets being fired all the time. An hour later I’m too sleepy to talk about rockets and death, and I stagger up into the pension and fall asleep on the floor beneath the sink.


The Boryeong Mud Festival began back in 1998. The small city of Boryeong was using mud from its flats in cosmetic products and decided to throw a festival for promotional purposes. Mud from the flats was brought to the beach in trucks and used to create a giant mud pavilion. They set up a mud slide, a mud pit, mud wrestling, colored mud for body painting, and an entire mud obstacle course. I wake up on the floor under the sink around 11:00 on Saturday, someone brushing their teeth above me. My friend who I came down with is gone. I can’t find anyone I know and my phone is dead. I end up going to the beach with two South Africans girls I’ve never met before in my life. We wander over to the mud pavilion and use paint brushes to lather ourselves in mud. I think I’m still drunk. The mud is thin and watery and feels cool and nice. One of the girls pours mud over my head. Everyone is coated in mud and they look sort of grayish blue, kind of like aged smurfs. My stomach is turning and I lose the girls in favor of getting noodles at a corner store. I try to find them again, but can’t.


4:00 PM on Saturday. I start thinking about the upcoming blog. What is there to write about? For the duration of the actual festival, I’ve either been searching the beach for my missing friends or trying to sleep off my hangover. I still can’t think of a title. I’m sitting on a staircase at the base of the beach, and two Koreans approach me. They’re from an organization called “The World Peace Initiative.” They hand me a dry erase board. I look at it. It says, “Peace Is” and then is blank. They ask me to write my definition of the word ‘peace.’ They will then photograph me holding the board and put the photo on the Internet. I stare at it blankly. I can’t think of anything to write. What is peace? Does peace involve secret missiles? I eventually jot down a quick definition and they snap my photo. I feel like a fool. Soon I will be on the Internet, covered from head to toe in grey mud, holding a board that says, “Peace is people living in harmony and not killing each other.” It’s not a dictionary definition, but I feel it summarizes ‘peace’ adequately enough.


I’m back with the two South African girls. 4:30 AM Sunday morning and we’ve been in a bar all night long. I’m happy that I’ve only had a few drinks, as my body still hurts. My blog has gone to hell, I think. I didn’t take a single photograph the entire time, and nothing very interesting has happened. The only evidence I was even here in Boryeong is the picture The World Peace Initiative took. I feel happy though, because I’m drinking with the two girls and a really funny American guy and at least I’m not alone anymore. I’m beyond exhausted and still don’t know what happened to my friends, but it doesn’t matter. One of the girls is speaking without direction, sort of stream-of-consciousness style, and she mumbles the phrase, “Mud, sweat and tears.”

“That’s it!” I declare in my head. The name of my blog will be “Mud, Sweat and Tears”! But really, there are no tears and there isn’t any sweat, either. Only mud. Lots and lots of mud.


One week later I search the Internet for my “Peace Is” photo. I find a gigantic gallery on The World Peace Initiative website, but I am glaringly absent. So there you have it. There are no snapshots of the Boryeong Mud Festival, not a single one. I have nothing to show anyone, and no hilarious stories to relate. I don’t even feel up to lifting the clever title from the South African girl. All in all, it was nothing more than 3 simple days spent by an American living in South Korea, hoping something interesting would happen.

I wonder if mud ages. The Earth is always getting older, and that must mean mud gets older too. Really, if you think about it, the Earth looks pretty damn good for its age.


White Guys: I Hate Them


Any time a person intellectually analyzes his or her viewpoint on something, it’s important to consider how that opinion would change if he or she was on the other side of the fence. For instance, I support taxing the hell out of the rich (in fact, I support basically just taking all of their money). What if I was rich? Wouldn’t that change my stance? Maybe then I would support tax cuts for the wealthy and making up the difference by crushing the middle class, or, as it’s sometimes called, “the way things are.” Likewise, I personally don’t support The Patriot Act. But what if I was on the other side of the fence, and I was a federal agent with lots of time on my hands and I had a genuine interest in good, juicy gossip? Then I would probably love The Patriot Act. It would be like having an endless supply of melodrama right at your fingertips. Who needs VH1 reality TV shows when you can listen in on real conversations people are having? Now that’s entertainment! Oh, and it helps fight terrorism too.

Lately, I’ve been trying to decide how exactly I feel about white guys. Do I like them or not? What’s my stance? In large part, this has been brought on by the negative attention white guys have been getting in the Korean media. Last month, MBC ran a story about interracial dating in which white guys were portrayed as being sex crazed, AIDS ridden, selfish children out to sap Korean women out of their money and their dignity. More recently, a Korean newspaper called ‘Nocut News’ ran two stories about white guys and their continued efforts to bed helpless Asian women. One story uses the phrase ‘white hunters’ to describe foreign men who try to pick up Korean women at clubs. The other story is about websites white guys have made that offer tips on picking up K girls, who are obviously the victims here and not at all capable choosing on their own volition to go out with a white guy/con artist (note: this sentence contained sarcasm). It is clear the Korean media hates white guys, and for good reason. How, though, do I feel about them?

Of course, this is a difficult question for me, as I am a white guy myself. It would be easy for me to stand firmly with my brethren and deride the media attacks as xenophobic, offensive, and ignorant. That would likely have been my stance several months ago. However, things are a lot different now. Despite what my skin pigmentation urges me to believe, I find my viewpoint shifting to the other side of the fence, and it’s all because I have a Korean girlfriend.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I should be more offended by the news reports, as I am clearly a sensitive soul looking for love and not by any means a ‘white hunter.’ (On a side note, I would urge Nocut News to create a better phrase, as ‘white hunter’ sounds like somebody running around killing white people {which I support}). Yes, I guess I should feel angry at being lumped in with the stereotype. There’s a bigger problem, though, and it dwarves these media stories in the same way current Kirstie Alley dwarves Cheers Kirstie Alley. And the problem is that white guys keep hittin’ on my girlfriend, man, and it’s not cool!

I wish there was some sort of white guy repellent, some version of “OFF” that I can spray on my girlfriend to keep the white guys away from her. Unfortunately, the fact is that nothing can stop a white man. Sure, she’ll tell them that she has a boyfriend, but that phrase doesn’t seem to register. Put a ring on her? It won’t matter – white guys see that as a challenge. Impregnate her? It’ll bring out their kinky side. The white man takes what he wants. Look at how he did the Native Americans. He stole their land and then humiliated them with a bunch of ridiculous sports mascots.

I can see the white man doing the same thing to me. In a few years, there could be a new baseball team called the Cleveland Pregnant Korean Girlfriends.

Those bastards.

Seriously, though, it does make me angry. This past weekend, a white guy approached my girlfriend at the bus station and told her that if she helped him find his hotel, he’d buy her a drink. What a deal. Who could say no? On my birthday, we got in a bit of a fight because some white guy kept sending my girlfriend text messages after midnight wanting her to meet up with him.

“He’s a friend,” she said.

“No,” I responded. “He’s a white guy. He does not understand friendly intentions.”

And that’s the thing: although they’re hyperbolic, to some degree, the Korean news reports are, well, kind of true. We are on the hunt for Korean girls. I’m settled now, but at one time, I suppose I was a ‘white hunter’ too…just an incompetent one. I remember talking to a girl in a bar. To try and create conversation, I asked her to teach me a curse word in Korean. She taught me some phrase and I repeated it.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means, ‘I will cut your penis,” she said. I wondered if it was supposed to be a warning.

“I will cut your penis? I’m going to forget this phrase as quickly as possible.”

At the time, the phrase seemed nutso. I’ve changed my mind, though. Maybe I should make things come full circle by using that phrase on the white guys who hit on my girlfriend. If that phrase doesn’t scare them away, nothing will. I can picture myself shouting it at some white guy in the bar.

“What’s up, bro? You talkin’ to my woman? Say that shit now. I’m standing right here, what the fuck you sayin? Yeah, bitch, I’m talking to you!”

“You got a fuckin’ problem?” white guy says.

“Yeah I got a fuckin’ problem! Step up, motherfucker, and I will fuck you up! I will work you dog! I WILL CUT YOUR PENIS, WHITE MAN!”


“Did I st-st-stutter, motherfucker!?! You heard me! I will cut your penis! I will wait for you to use the washroom, and then I will run up in that motherfucker with a piece of loose leaf motherfuckin’ paper and cut your penis! Don’t fuck with me! I got time, you gotta piss at some point, and I got a whole pack of motherfuckin’ paper, white boy! No high five for you!”

Life is hard. I guess the most important thing is that I trust my girlfriend and I know she’d never do anything. That’s part of what makes our relationship so strong. I trust her to fend off the white hunters. It’s vital. Without trust, I would be a nervous wreck all the time. Not just from white guys, either. From what I’m told, horny men come in a whole variety of other races, too.


Generation Glue Stick


Title: Generation Glue Stick

Main Idea: How the invention of the glue stick has changed an entire generation of young people.

Introduction: If Laura wasn’t so adorable, she might be mistaken for a brat. It would be an understandable mistake. Laura is nine years old, wears nice little dresses and bursts into laughter a lot. She could be the poster child for cute children. She could also be the poster child for COCD – Childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Give Laura the colored pencils to color with and she will have a fit (she prefers the markers). Hand Laura the scissors with the red handle and she will refuse to use them (she will only use the scissors with the blue handle). Grade her paper by putting a smile face next to the right answers, and she will remove them with White Out (correct answers, obviously, are scored with hearts). The thing is, Laura isn’t the only one with COCD. Most of the kids I work with have it to some degree. It’s not a new phenomenon – kids have always been stubborn – but it’s getting worse. Why, you ask? Perhaps it began with but one small invention, the glue stick.

Body Paragraph #1: Way back in 1969, a German company named Henkel had a bright idea. They studied lipstick and noted how remarkably easy the ‘twist-up’ applicator was to use. What if, they asked themselves, other items could be created in lipstick’s image? Henkel decided that glue would be an ideal candidate and soon after introduced “The Pritt Stick,” the first incarnation of the modern glue stick. Only three years later, Pritt Sticks were being sold in 38 countries. By 2001, that number climbed to 121. But while the bright idea of creating a glue applicator modeled after lipstick came originally from Henkel, another company piggy-backed it with a bright idea of its own. The Elmer’s Company, who used a cartoon figure named Elmer the Bull as their mascot, had the brilliant notion of sticking the word ‘school’ in the name of their products. This worked wonders. Schools always needed cheap crafting products, and Elmer’s jumped all over that. Elmer’s products such ‘School Glue,’ ‘Krazy Glue,’ and the ‘X-Acto Knife’ became ubiquitous in schools all over America. The focus of Elmer’s advertising is still squarely placed on educators and students; go to their website today, and you will find a feature entitled ‘The 1st Day of School’ filling their homepage, with side links for parents and teachers.

Body Paragraph #2: So what does any of this mean? I argue that through the advancement in the quality of products (The Pritt Stick, for instance) and their widespread usage in schools (thanks to companies like Elmer’s), we have spawned Generation Glue Stick, a explosion of young people who have grown to understand the world through a prism of order, convenience, and tidiness. Let me explain. For a long time, students in younger grades had to make do with what they had. Want to glue two papers together for an art project? A student used a bottle of glue for that. This was, by its nature, an imperfect device. One had to be rather careful when using the glue bottle, making sure not to overdo it. Personally, I liked to employ the ‘glue dotting technique,’ where a person places a small dot of glue on each corner of the paper and sticks it to something that way. It required patience. The glue took awhile to dry. Also, classrooms weren’t always that well stocked with glue bottles. Sometimes there was only one big bottle and you waited your turn to use it. That said, I never considered a bottle of glue to be particularly hard to use until recently. My kids, it seems, are very glue stick reliant. Give them a bottle of glue, and it’s a disaster. There’s glue everywhere and lots of children crying. While convenience is the major draw of the glue stick, independence is a benefit as well. Schools have tons of little glue sticks so that each student can glue his or her own stuff in solitude. There is very little waiting or sharing. It’s a fact that having only four glue sticks will turn an otherwise normal class of ten kids into Lord of the Flies.

This is an awarding winning piece of art created by an elementary school student. I didn’t have much time for abstract art in elementary school, as I was too busy drawing dragons.

Body Paragraph #3: The glue stick isn’t the only culprit. Everything, for today’s young student, is constructed on a platform of order and visual aesthetic. At the risk of sounding really old, when I was a kid, White Out was a delicacy, something used only in special cases where the scribble out technique just wasn’t acceptable. Today, all my kids carry around white out tape. Before, kids wrote with little nub pencils that had shrunk down to a half an inch from lots of usage. Today’s kids have immortal mechanical pencils that they fill with pristinely thin pieces of lead in a delicate procedure, done with the care of a surgeon making an incision. Very little is handwritten today. Final drafts are almost always typed. Crayons are Stone Age-level old fashioned. With copy machines in all schools, kids can always screw up their worksheet and ask the teacher for a clean new one. Class speeches have a PowerPoint presentation to back them. Instruction has become more visual and structured as well. Take a writing assignment, for instance. I can remember jotting down a crappy outline on a sheet of loose leaf paper. Now, reading and writing assignments involve a giant variety of mental maps, graphic organizers, brain storming diagrams, and the like. There is a real sense of perfection in the work of today’s students. It’s no wonder that Laura will only use the blue scissors or accept hearts for her correct answers. For her, everything in education has been done by design, been crafted and molded to fit. It’s not a negative thing. Call it a new outlook. With the glue stick and its cohorts, our children today are being encouraged not only to be creative, but to be professional about it.

Conclusion: Generation Glue Stick, in many ways, is more advanced than previous generations were. They will grow to become people who file things well, who document, who know how to plate food in a visually pleasing way, and who will hand in reports that are spaced properly and don’t have mustard spilled on them. True, they can’t use a glue bottle, they don’t work particularly well with others, and they have difficulty dealing with mistakes and adversity. It doesn’t matter. They know how to fix things. Whatever mistakes they’ve made will safely be confined to the outline, and, I’m pretty sure, no parents hang outlines up on the refrigerator door.


Carrying a Piano Through a Store That Sells Glassware – Part Two: Life is Better as a Comedy, Even if You Don’t Find it Funny


Physics has always worked against me. For years, no matter how I arrange the items in my cupboard, something is bound to tumble out at my face when I open the door. If I stand a book upright on a shelf, it will fall over. Say I pick up a bottle by the cap, the cap will absolutely not be screwed on right and the bottle will fall and spill its contents (likely beer) on my bed or on my friends. Yes, physics hates me. The other day, I tried to put a tuna sandwich in the work fridge and proceeded to cause an avalanche of about 80 little bottles of energy drink. I figure I must be doing something wrong with understanding centers of gravity, or inertia, or maybe I just bring out the entropy in things. Try to tie a shoe, the lace breaks; try to hang a shirt in the closet, it wiggles its way off the hook; try to open a package of tofu, I end up spraying myself in the eye with a jet stream of tofu juice.

Perhaps it’s all a bad case of bad luck. My father used to say our family was cursed with it. He called it “The Panara Curse,” and it was responsible for a whole bunch of stuff, including bad Internet connections, Blockbuster not having the movie we wanted, and the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls. Some say they chocked. It’s a little known fact that they really lost due to our fandom.

Back when I was in art school, I took a literature course called “Tragedy.” It was all about the Gods and Fate and Destiny and our fatal flaws and that good stuff. The professor was some middle-aged white man with a beard who would sit at a table and talk in a monotone about The Oresteia and King Lear and things like that. I’d typically listen intently for about 20 minutes and then tune him out completely. The other students loved him, though, and called him ‘brilliant.’ I’d sit there hopelessly bored and damning myself for not taking a class taught by a dumbass instead of someone brilliant. At least that would’ve been entertaining.

One class, the professor started rambling on and on about the differences between the ‘tragic hero’ and the ‘comic hero.’ The biggest difference, according to him, was the way Fate interacted with each. Fate totally shit all over the tragic hero, often striping him of pride and then killing him. The comic hero, on the other hand, was plucky and that caused Fate to lose its mean streak. In the end, the comic hero would succeed, while the poor tragic hero was utterly doomed.

“I don’t agree with that,” a student who was smarter than me said. “I don’t think Fate is kind to the comic hero either.”

The professor fell out of his chair, alarmed from hearing a voice other than his own. After the kids in the front row helped him up, he asked the bright guy who had spoken up to proceed.

“Well,” the guy said, “it seems to me like Fate sets up the comic hero for failure too. I mean, think of, like, old Laurel and Hardy comedies. They always end up in some ridiculous situation where everything is bound to go wrong. Like they’ll have to carry a piano through a store that sells glassware or something. You watch it, and you know they’re going to break everything in the place, and they know it too, but they try anyways. I guess the difference is, for them, being doomed is funny.”

The student was totally right. Fate is an evil jerk both ways, causing Oedipus to marry his mom and at the same time manipulating the comic hero into doing all sorts of hopeless things. It’s the reason Harold Lloyd has to climb a skyscraper (Safety Last), Buster Keaton ends up taking the helm of an unmanned train (The General) or a sinking ship (The Navigator), and Fate causes the money to fall out of a hole in Charlie Chaplin’s pocket when he takes a girl out to a nice restaurant to impress her (The Immigrant). Modern comedy is no different. Fate has the liquor store get robbed right when McLovin is trying to buy booze, it has the tiger wake up in the back seat of the car in The Hangover, and stupid Fate causes pitiful Greg Focker to set a wedding altar on fire and have to spray paint a cat. Tell these guys that Fate is on their side. Something tells me they wouldn’t quite see it that way.

There are a lot of days when I’ll wake up, think of the day I have ahead of me, and say to myself, “Wow, I don’t think I can do this.” Life is hard like that. It’s not just limited to problems with physics, either. There’s the job, trying to make relationships work, money, and all sorts of things that make a plate falling off the counter and breaking on the floor seem trivial. Really, there are a ton of things that feel sort of like carrying a piano through a store that sells glassware. Impossible. Bound for failure.

At those times, I try my best to tell myself that I’m the comic hero, not the tragic one. It’s a bit inspiring. My father never saw things that way. He seemed to peg himself as the tragic hero, doomed by a curse. My poor old man – he never could laugh when things went wrong. I fall into that trap a lot of the time too. The comic hero, though, can adapt, can brush things off, can keep his emotions in check, and is content just by getting to the end of the day. I find a lot of value in that. Forget the President – Larry David should be promoted as a role model for today’s youth.

Yesterday afternoon I was thinking about these things as I sat down on the toilet to fulfill my digestive needs. A drop of water hit me on the head. I looked up. The roof was leaking, and what it was leaking was disturbingly off-white. I shifted my body to avoid the next inevitable drop. In doing so, I somehow caused the toilet seat to break free, sending me crashing down into the toilet bowl like I was falling into a tragically un-bottomless pit. Or, perhaps, falling into a pit, bottomless. I grabbed at the toilet paper roll to try and save myself.

Another drop of brown liquid fell on my head. “Am I really supposed to find this funny?” I thought. Then I figured I might as well. If there are Gods that control our fate, they were probably laughing, so I might as well join them.


Carrying a Piano Through a Store That Sells Glassware – Part One: Anger, Peppers, Wet Sleeves, and Curse Words


Fate never seems to set things up kindly for me. All I wanted to do this afternoon was cut up a green pepper to put in my salad for lunch. That was all, a minor wish. It seemed so simple, but given the lack of counter space in my relatively tiny apartment, cutting that pepper turned out to require a Herculean effort, as though it was one of his labors, like when he had to kidnap the dog from Hell or clean the poopy stables in a day. Cutting the pepper on my microscopic kitchen counter space was going to be difficult to that extent. Besides, how hard is it to kidnap a dog? Ain’t you heard of Snausages, Hercules?

Let’s get back to the pepper. First, Fate had the plate slide off the counter and into the sink. The bottom of my sink is no place any food should visit; it’s a foul netherworld coated in bacteria, the e-coli virus, and the slug-like alien parasites from the movie “Slither.” Luckily, no parts of the pepper made contact with any of that. As I brought the plate back to the counter, Fate caused me to accidentally nudge the knife, sending it falling, point down, towards my foot. I danced out the way, nimble as I am. However, moving away from the knife caused the plate to somehow descend from the countertop itself, exploding upon impact with the floor like an egg or a cell phone. Glass and pepper flew everywhere.

“Motherfucker!!!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “God Damn fucking bastard!”

I suppose I was referring to Fate, though I’m not sure. Maybe I was randomly talking about my father. Who can say? The point is, I was, for 15 seconds, insanely mad about this. My mind was overtaken by absolute rage, all because a stupid plate with a pepper on it fell and broke on the floor. I took a deep breath and tried to settle myself. My face was red and I felt embarrassed, wondering if anyone had heard me. I was thankful that I don’t have any kids. I could imagine them shaking with fear in the corners of the bedroom.

“What happened to Daddy?” they’d cry, cowering. “It must be something serious.”

“Well,” their mother would say, “he dropped a plate on the floor.”

“He dropped a plate on the floor? Is that it?”

“Yes. Bear in mind, it had the pepper for his salad on it.”

My kids would exchange glances. “If there’s nothing else, it would be safe for us to come out of the corner now, right?”

“Absolutely, darlings. Just be sure to stay close by it later when Daddy starts making dinner.”

They would think their father was a madman. Why had I gone so berserk over something so insignificant? It reminded me of an incident that happened to my friend Mary. I was standing in the hallway at school one day when she came out of the bathroom looking shaken.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I rolled my sleeves up to wash my hands, but when I put my hands in the water, my sleeve came down and it got all wet.” She showed me the wet sleeve. “I blew up. I did. I don’t know why. I totally went off. I screamed. I went ‘Aggghhhhh!!!!’”

“Perfectly understandable reaction,” I said earnestly.

She shook her head. “I was so furious I could’ve killed somebody. Seriously. If there was somebody in there with me, I would’ve killed that person.”

I thought of Mary’s wet-sleeve incident as I swept up the plate and threw it away. The anger and frustration she felt over getting her sleeve wet was something I could completely empathize with. I gathered the pieces of cut up pepper from off the floor too, but decided I’d be damned if I was going to throw that away as well.

If I did, the World would win.

“Fuck the World,” I said. “I’m washing off this pepper and eating it. I don’t give a shit if there’s bits of glass in it. I will eat that glass. Fuck Fate in its face.”

And eat the glassy pepper I did. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was good, but it was worth it. Feeling the crunch of glass in my teeth as I chewed, I couldn’t help but smile.

I had, for that little moment, conquered Fate. The Greek Gods would’ve been proud, I think.

(This is the first part of a deeper two-part piece. It is to be continued, unless a few bits of glass cut my throat and I die in my sleep. In that case, I suppose the obit would complete this epic saga.)


Your Language is Very Hard to Speak. Therefore, It Would Be Better For Both Of Us If You Spoke Mine.


The Vice Principal at my former school was an older man, in his fifties, with grey hair and glasses, a pleasant smile and a good parking space.  I hope that when I get to be an old man, I can develop a sweet old guy smile that tells people I’m nice and not watching teen porn in my basement. More importantly, I hope to have a decent parking spot wherever I work. It would be miserable having to drag my elderly bones all the way across the Walmart parking lot, through the snow and the rain. I’d probably have a heart attack eventually. With that in mind, when I’m 70 and applying for the Door Greeter job at Walmart, to ensure my safety I’ll have to pay the cart boy to take CPR training.

It could be part of the job requirements: bringing carts in, helping customers, occasionally performing chest compressions on the Door Greeter.

Anyways, Vice Principal (people in Korea often refer to each other by job title and rarely by name), had a daughter who was overseas studying English in the USA.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Whereabouts in the US is she?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh…like, I mean, which state is she in?”

He shrugged. He knew she was in the US, and that was good enough. Further information wasn’t necessary – it’s not like it’s a big country or anything. Vice Principal barely spoke English and, maybe because teaching me his native tongue was going to be the only way we’d ever have a conversation, decided that he was going to be my Korean professor. Every day he’d call me to his desk and, for about an hour, we would go over Korean. He’d give me homework and bought me a CD to practice with. Not before long, though, things started getting out of hand.

“Today, numbers,” he said. We went over the numbers 1-10 in both Korean counting systems (sort of like cardinal and ordinal). I lumbered through it, needing hints several times. Vice Principal thought it best to go further. He moved on into the teens.

“It is very easy,” he said.

Trying to say the teen words, I was very conscious that I could barely remember 1-10. Still, I tried. Vice Principal was apparently satisfied, because he kept going on, further. 20, 30, 40, 50. 100. 150. 1,000. By the time he was attempting to teach me 1,000,000, smoke was coming out of my ears.

“Dude, I’m lost,” I said. “Can we concentrate on the 1-10?”

He looked angry. “This is very easy! Practice. Say 167,392 in Korean.”

It was useless. Our Korean lessons fell apart soon after. I stopped doing my homework and Vice Principal would stand by my desk and shake his head, muttering, “Bad student” like an angry parent. I was ashamed, and would’ve accepted it had he disciplined me in normal parental fashion by not letting me watch TV or paddling me with a hairbrush.

Learning a second language is hard. That’s obvious. It’s even harder when you’re in your mid-30s and have no background in whatever language you’re trying to pick up. People seem shocked every time I reveal that I’ve been in Korea for over two years and still speak a very minimal amount of Hangul-mal. The lack of language expertise has been more apparent this second year. My first year, I was kind of stuck in the expat bubble, speaking and spending time with other foreigners and not particularly concerned about anything. Now, things are different. I’ve drifted from the expat community, see only Koreans daily, and have a Korean girlfriend who has Korean parents I will one day have to meet. And talk to.

I feel they would not be impressed if I can’t, I don’t know, count past six.

There have been moments of effort, I guess. I signed up for language exchange. But then my partner quit before we met. Then I tried to sign up for lessons at a real University. They responded to one email and lost interest in me after that. It was failure, abject failure. I tried to have my girlfriend and my students teach me sentences. My girlfriend taught me to say “I like puppies,” and my students taught me to say “I am a rabbit.” So at least I have the vital survival phrases down.

I envy my students. Learning English at such a young age, they are allowed to butcher it, to take forever, to be confused, to say whacky things. In fact, I prefer that. I’m not in teaching for the money; I’m in it for the comedy. Like the one time we were doing the ‘My Family’ unit, and students were supposed to say sentences in this style: She is my mother’s mother; she is my grandmother. I called on one goofy kid, and he confidently blurted out, “He is my mother’s father; he is my girlfriend.”

I loved it. Another time, in the high school, there was a kid who didn’t speak any English at all. They had to talk about their hobbies, and the students were giggling. The boys around this particular student had ‘taught’ him what to say.

“What is your hobby?” I asked, speaking slowly.

“Masturbation,” he said.

“Great,” I said, being encouraging. “Let’s not say that, though. What do you do when you’re not masturbating?”

“Umm…play computer games.”

“Hmm,” I said. “I know many, many people just like you.”

Moments like that are fun and make the classroom better. This past week, I was playing Scrabble with a kid. He had his letters turned so I couldn’t see them. He looked at the board and nodded, knowing what word to make. He placed the letters down.




“Oh no,” I thought. “Is he going to spell ‘jizz?’ How does he even know that?”

He completed his word with U-S. A big smile crossed his face. “Jesus!” he proclaimed.

Jesus. Jizus. Close enough. It was funny. That’s the benefit to learning a second language young, I think. Fucking up is cute and humorous. At my age, it isn’t. At lunch with my current boss (who speaks minimal English) and a bi-lingual teacher, I was asked to say something in Korean.

“Kangagee choa hey-o,” I stated, resorting to my standard line of ‘I like puppies.’

She looked confused. “Is ‘Kangagee’ you girlfriend?” she asked. My pronunciation was bad and she didn’t understand. The bilingual teacher had to explain that I was trying to say that I like puppies. It was sad and awkward and my face got red like the Koreans when they drink too much. My boss eventually got it and just sort of nodded and said, “Oh, okay.” I felt like a mentally challenged boy.

Living in another country, language acquisition is sort of like being potty trained. Peeing in the diaper is okay for awhile, but I’ve lived in Korea for two years and it’s time I learned to use the toilet. I remember when Vice Principal was giving me lessons and teaching me to read Korean letters. He spelled out something and watched me, impatiently as he usually was, as I took a long time to sound it out. I finally read it and he got excited.

“Cool,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“It is my name,” he said, the pleasant smile on his face. “You can call me that.”


Off the Beaten Path: The Bizarre Shrine by Ferdinand Magellan’s Death Spot


Ferdinand Magellan and I go way back. For years, whenever I watched Jeopardy and Alex Trebek asked an impossibly difficult question, “Magellan” was always my default answer.

Trebek:  What explorer, born in 1728, discovered Newfoundland?

Me: Um…Magellan?

It was almost always wrong, and yet it seemed so right. According to my responses to an uncountable number of Jeopardy questions, Magellan had discovered basically every place on earth, mostly because I couldn’t name any other explorers. I’d also stick Magellan into World Wars if I was clueless, or send him into space if I felt like it. Magellan, Magellan, Magellan. It’s fun to say. And on the rare occasion it was actually the correct answer, a wonderful feeling would come over me like I had caught the holy ghost or won a few bucks on a scratch off ticket.

All that is to say, I was pretty pumped when I realized I would be able to stand on the exact spot where Ferdinand Magellan, my most favorite explorer, died almost 500 years ago. Most people don’t know this, but Magellan – whose claim to fame is that he sailed around the world – didn’t in fact make it to the end of his voyage. Actually, of his crew of 270 men, only 18 made it from beginning to end. Magellan himself died during a battle in the Philippines, killed by a local tribal leader named Lapu Lapu. Why was he fighting Lapu Lapu? Imperialism, Christianity, and because Magellan had a lot of men and was a big show off.

About a twenty minute cab ride from Cebu Airport, one can easily swing by the “Mactan Shrine” and check out the mural painting of Lapu Lapu killing Magellan, as well as the goofy statue erected in honor of Lapu Lapu, where he looks poised to star in the next hit Hollywood blockbuster.


I have no idea what Magellan was thinking. Come on, look at that guy! Lapu Lapu’s a beast! The flippin’ Avengers would decide to steer clear of that dude. Magellan suffered from overconfidence, though, and as a result, he was struck with a spear and beaten to death. Lapu Lapu was supposed to return the body, but when he went to get it, it was gone. To this day, it is unknown what happened to Magellan. It seems that the body just somehow disappeared into the ocean.

And that’s pretty cool.

The real treat, though, when visiting the Mactan Shrine, is the incredibly weird…um…thing located a short walk from the statue. Right by the ocean, there is a bizarre semi-circle of totem poles and skulls on sticks. I have no idea what it is. It looks pretty recent, as though it was erected to ward off tourists or something. I don’t know what purpose it serves, nor do I know who made it. All I know is that it was damn scary.

Yes, that last picture features me mugging for the camera. The thing was pretty unnerving. My pose is the actualization of what I was feeling on the inside.

Whatever this second little ‘shrine’ on the island is, it was a gem and I was extremely excited to have stumbled upon it. I was also proud to say that I’d set foot on Magellan’s death spot. It seems so random to be able to say that. Despite being dead, the great Magellan continues to live on famously, having a strait and a GPS system and a spacecraft named after him. And, in addition to all that, he’s also sometimes the answer to Jeopardy questions, and when you’re the answer to a Jeopardy question, gosh dangit, that’s when you know you’ve made it.


The Legend of Santiago, Who Either Lost or Found Something Somewhere Beyond the Horizon


On certain summer nights in Hanoi, the rain forces people to take cover. Some slink off into bars, ushered in by watchful doormen ready to yank the metal drop-door shut should any police pass by (in Hanoi, bars stay open long after curfew, hiding their patrons inside clumsily like kids kicking toys under the bed). Other people find refuge under the canopy at the bar by the Water Puppet Theatre, drinking beers as the motor-scooters speed through the drenched Old Quarter streets. Then there are the folks who dart into the overpriced coffee shop that sits on the lip of the Hoan Kiem Lake, where they nurse every sip out of a Café Latte and watch the rain beat down on the water outside. The city loses its signal right before your eyes, drifting in and out of a warm fuzz like a television channel disappearing into static, and on nights such as this, the local people of Hanoi huddle together in their homes, safe from the rain, and talk in whispers about a tall Spaniard named Santiago who set foot there just over a year ago.

Actually, they don’t do anything like that. I’m sure nobody there knows who the heck Santiago was. I spent a decent amount of time with the guy, and even I can barely remember him. I’d like to think of him as something of a legend, though, a mythical figure that appeared out of nowhere and then vanished again. He’s really my own celebrated apparition, but since I met him in Hanoi, I’d like to pretend that he’s theirs too.

It was a rainy night in August. Perkins and I found ourselves eating pho at a little restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We’d vowed to eat pho every day we spent in Vietnam, and we were hell bent on sticking to that. Off to our left, a guy sat by himself, eating his own bowl of pho. He obviously wasn’t Vietnamese. Since I don’t talk to people, it must’ve been Perkins who invited him over to join us. His name was Santiago, and he had just arrived from Spain earlier that day.

“I’m so happy to be here,” he said, glowing, taking the spring roll I offered him (I had also eaten spring rolls every day too). “This place is amazing. It’s been one of my dreams to come here.”

From out of his pocket, he brought a folded piece of paper. There, he had handwritten a plan for the two weeks he’d be spending in Indochina. I liked the look of it. By that, I don’t mean I had any idea as to what his plan was, exactly, but I liked the visual aesthetic of a two week agenda scrawled down in pencil on a lone sheet of loose leaf paper. We all finished our pho and Santiago invited us to join him for a beer, and since he seemed like an interesting character, we went.

After a few drinks, Santiago started talking non-stop. This was fine with me, because it meant I only had to nod and pretend I was listening. “This is freedom!” he shouted. “Look at us all! We’re young and free. Other people have houses and kids, and here we are, having drinks together in Asia.”

In truth, you have to be kind of a selfish person to travel a lot. You make plans with only yourself in mind, spend all your money on yourself, and congratulate yourself for doing it. Santiago was celebrating that selfishness. He’d broken up with his girlfriend of several years in order to come. “She wanted me there,” he said. “She said I had to be there. I wanted to go see the world and she said I couldn’t…so I broke up with her…and two days later I jumped on a plane and here I am.”

“Does she know you came to Vietnam?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “She doesn’t know. Maybe she tries to contact me. I don’t know.”

I’m not the type to try and psychoanalyze people, but Santiago seemed a little sad. I could relate. In 2009, I made my first trip outside of the USA. It was with my wife. We had made plans to live in South Korea for two months, together, to share the experience. When those two months were over, I wanted to see so much more. She couldn’t wait to get back to our house in the States, our two cats, and all that jazz. I couldn’t do it. We separated. I think she still has the two cats.

Santiago drank more and the more he did the more he pulled out his piece of paper with the pencil-written agenda on it, looking over it and remarking about how remarkable it all was. The freedom of it. But with each beer, he also seemed a little more bummed out. Maybe that’s why he kept yanking that piece of paper out of his pocket.

He had clearly gone Beyond the Horizon, if you will. I read that play, written by Eugene O’Neil, back in 2009 when my wife and I were drifting apart. In brief, there are two male characters, two brothers. One goes off to sea and the other stays home. In the final act of the play they reunite. They find that each of them is filled with regret and envy, mournful, in his own way, at having chosen what he did. The one who had stayed wishes he had gone, and the one who had gone wishes he had stayed.

It’s a bit more meaningful than simply saying ‘the grass is always greener,’ because it’s about traveling, about seeing the world for yourself, and really it’s about how painful that can be. Every time I leave to go see a new place, I’m leaving somebody, some form of a home, and whatever semblance of stability I’ve made for myself. It can feel childish. I want everything. I want to have a girlfriend who loves me, and I also want to dash off at a moment’s notice to go jaunt around whatever place I feel like exploring. I want a home and a family, but only after I see Africa. I want to be an old man who has stories, and I also want to make sure I’ll have somebody to tell those stories to. Santiago knew, with every sip of beer, how rough it was. The feeling is difficult to describe. I’m sure he thought about the girl he had left, and I’m sure that when he did, those thoughts didn’t pull him back, but instead somehow propelled him forward, sadly.

At the end of the night, Santiago threw up, politely apologized, and left. We never saw him again. To me, he is a legend. He is the embodiment of the young man who can’t stop looking beyond the horizon. It’s hard to stop once you’ve looked. I suppose he isn’t really a legend back in Hanoi, where surely many other young men like him have passed through, stopping to taste the pho, talk to some strangers, and take cover from the rain when it comes down so hard the city itself gets lost.