A Sentimental Journey, Somewhat Lacking in Sentiment


blog split pantsIt was the middle of July, and I was back in South Korea.

For the previous six months, China had held me like a (somewhat abusive) mother, kept me close to her heaving breast. But now I’d broken free from her, fled back to Daddy South Korea. That might sound goofy, but it’s how I viewed the two of them. My second life had begun inside Daddy South Korea; I’d formed inside his scrotum and was eventually shot out into Mother China, somehow penetrating her Great Wall, which, in this analogy, I suppose would represent a diaphragm. Yes, it was all an accident, just like when my actual parents conceived me one sunny afternoon in the 1970s.

It felt good, being back in Seoul. Sitting around a deserted restaurant, eating dongkas by myself, I realized that it had blog dongkasbeen an amazing five years since I’d first set foot in South Korea. That was back in 2009, when I worked at an English Academy for the summer, before I returned to the USA and completely blew my life up. I came to Korea that summer with a wife by my side and a house back in North Carolina. One week after returning, the summer about to end, I had neither.

Suddenly, while savoring my delicious dongkas, the significance of those last five years seemed enormous. Meaningful. I could feel the wicked
pointer finger of nostalgia poking at me – nostalgia, that most awful of emotions, more prevalent in Americans than in others, the desire to relive one’s past through pictures or objects or stories. Nostalgia is almost blog blow up dollpornographic in a way, masturbatory, both sometimes revolving around home movies or toys, substitutions for a real something. I knew it was happening yet I couldn’t stop it. I wanted so badly to go back to my first apartment in Seoul, just so I could look at its façade, as though it was a kind of ancient ruins, standing there as a symbol of an era that ended long ago.

blog nostalgia comicYes, I could picture everything. All the images I’d snapped in my head five years earlier. There was that big fountain by the subway station, the one where thin arcs of clean white water would shoot up from the ground as if by some miracle the concrete was spraying out champagne. Then there was the apartment building where I used to live, old and exhausted, my former place on the second floor, sitting on top of a pig meat restaurant. And finally there was the building where my wife – prior to ex status – used to live, an all-girls dormitory, the place in which she sat and decided she didn’t care for Korea (her feelings alone) and didn’t like our marriage much either (that one was mutual).

So I went back. I got on the subway and traveled to Sinjeongnegeori Station, walked out of exit number three and, stepping into the sun, I immediately knew exactly where I was. It was weird, sort of like seeing a movie for the second time, remembering most of it, filling in the details that hadn’t seemed important the first time around. I easily found the all-girls dormitory, the pig meat restaurant, and the fountain where I used to sit and chill after work. All the locations were close to each other geographically, exactly as they’d shared the same space in my memory.

Now, I’m not totally sure what I expected to feel. Awe? Wonder? Anxiety? As it turned out, I felt very little of anything. I looked at all the stuff and kind of shrugged. Said, “Yeah, that’s cool,” in my head. Really, it’s probably
the way I’d react if my guardian angel came and transported me anywhere in my past. Replacing George Bailey with me would significantly lessen the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I would go through my past vaguely interested, bored, and then, at the end, jump off the bridge.


To heck with Christmas.

To heck with Christmas.

Undistracted by emotion, I sat down by the big fountain, opened my journal, and wrote this. I’d gone back in time and realized that nothing had really changed, although I don’t mean that in a negative or cynical way. The locations were the same, the people seemed the same. I was still writing in journals with a black pen, still amusing myself with my own thoughts. I was still in Seoul, even after all that time had passed. But more than all that, and most importantly, I still felt all the hope that I’d felt sitting on the same bench half a decade earlier. The belief that I could make my life better, create this brilliant new start to things. I thought about the future, just as I had before, and again it seemed beautiful, filled with limitless possibility.

The past is not a pretty place to get stuck in. I’d taken a sentimental journey there only to find it lacked sentiment, and for that I couldn’t have been happier.


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.


Yellowface is not Acceptable (With the Exception of Spongebob)


“Keanu Reeves is Asian?” I muttered, confused.  It was a Sunday afternoon and I, veering from the beaten weekend path of getting drunk and nursing hangovers, had gone to see a play with a couple of friends.  It’s better to feel cultured than nauseous and dehydrated, I figured.  The play was titled “Yellowface,” and its subject was…well…yellowface.  If you’re not familiar with what that is, here’s a quick definition:

Yellowface: Yellowface is the practice in American cinema, American theatre, and American television where East Asian characters are portrayed by predominantly white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asia facial characteristics.

Sis was sitting next to me, and I poked her arm.  “Seriously, Keanu Reeves is Asian?”  She shrugged.  (He’s part Chinese.)

I was referring to a line in the play in which the main character uses Reeves as an example of a successful actor of Asian decent.  Written by David Henry Hwang (who wrote a famous play called M. Butterfly which I have heard of, though I know nothing about), “Yellowface” is about an Asian playwright named, boringly enough, David Henry Hwang (what a lack of creativity, eh?).  At the start of the play, Hwang protests the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, as the lead in a production of “Miss Saigon.”  This actually happened in real life: Pryce wore yellow makeup and tape around his eyes to look Vietnamese, a decision that infuriated the Asian community.  The Hwang character decides to produce his own play in response, casting a real Asian actor in the lead role but, to comic and dramatic effect, mistakenly casts a white guy by accident.  On a related note, believe it or not, I myself have never been mistaken for being Korean.

This got me thinking: If I was watching a movie and there was a white actor wearing blackface, I would obviously be taken aback and would probably turn it off.  Why, then, don’t I have the same guttural reaction if it’s a white actor wearing yellowface?  While I recognize that what I’m seeing is bad, I’m not that offended by it.  For instance, I love the movie “Living It Up,” starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.  I’ve seen it several times, and I always laugh when Jerry puts in fake buck-teeth and pretends to be an Asian doctor.  “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is another movie I think is fantastic, and although I shake my head during the scenes with Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man, it’s more with a smirk than in angry befuddlement.  The list goes on and on.

Exploring the Internet, I found this excellent site, which presents a history of yellowface in pictures.  It’s worth looking at, not only because it’s informative, but also because there are hilarious photos of John Wayne playing Genghis Khan and Christopher Walken dressed up like a geisha.

“Sis,” I said during intermission of the play, “you’re Asian.  How offensive do you find yellowface?”

We got into a decent discussion revolving around the TV show Kung Fu.  The play mentioned how Bruce Lee was initially supposed to star in Kung Fu but was replaced by David Carradine because the producers didn’t feel viewers would watch a show with an Asian lead.  “I loved Kung Fu,” Sis said.  “David Carradine was great.”

“He was Caine,” I said, agreeing.  “He was brilliant.”

“It wouldn’t have been as good if it was Bruce Lee.  Say, Bro, were you a kid when that show was on TV?”

“I’m only 33.  I’m not that old.  I watched reruns.”

“So you’re what…a year or two younger than Kung Fu?”

“Shut up.”

The conclusion of our discussion was that we can tolerate yellowface just fine as long as the movie or television show is good.  It’s not a very strong stance to have, really.  Gutless.  It’s also very similar to how I feel about racist jokes; I know I shouldn’t laugh, but if the joke is playful enough and not especially hateful, I’ll probably find it funny.  And it helps if the person making the joke is of the race the joke is about.  For instance, I’ll laugh when Chris Rock does a routine about black people.  If a white comedian like, say, Larry the Cable Guy, were to do a routine about black people, I wouldn’t be so comfortable.

If this is my position on yellowface, it’s horribly wrong, isn’t it?  There shouldn’t be scale of racism, where certain things are acceptable and others aren’t.  Where would the line be?  I brought this up with my girlfriend, who is Korean.  She objected right away, because she didn’t like being thought of as “yellow.”

“Yes,” she said, sarcastically, “I am yellow.  I am like The Simpsons.”

I laughed.  We got to talking and I realized, to my surprise, that she thought The Simpsons are, in fact, supposed to be an Asian family.  The idea amazed me.

“The Simpsons are Caucasian, baby,” I said.

“Then why is their skin yellow?”

“I don’t know…it’s a creative decision…like a caricature…it’s hard to explain.  Anyways, they’re not Asian.”

“Yes, The Simpsons are Asian,” she said, “and so is Spongebob.”  It was at that point I realized she was just messing with me.  But in doing so, she had made a valid point.  In my head, there was a simple truth: The Simpsons are white.  It was ridiculous to think, even for a second, that they could be anything else.

As silly as that sounds, perhaps it made me understand, if only superficially, how an Asian would feel when David Carradine is cast as a character named Kwai Chang Caine or when “The Last Airbender” stars a bunch of white kids.  There is a truth to things, a reality to be conscious of.

People don’t always have to be white.   Take Keanu Reeves for instance.


133 Lbs? I Give Up!


Heated floors are neat unless you’re sleeping on one.  In Korea, apartments aren’t heated by warm air blown in through heating vents, but instead by hot water pipes under the floor.   I mention this to warn anyone who foolishly turns the heat up and then thinks sleeping on the floor is going to be anything less than painful.  I was at a friend’s apartment, and she did this to me, either by accident or purposely – I’m not sure how good of friends we are.  I felt like an egg or a corn on the cob, or a hot dog, or spaghetti, or something else that gets boiled (see, the joke is that I felt like I was being boiled, so I was naming a bunch of…oh, you got it, it just wasn’t funny…okay let’s move on).  These people in Korea really emphasize the floor a lot – you can’t wear your shoes and walk on the floor, the floor is heated, you sit on the floor to eat…in America, we dislike the floor so much we cover it.

In the morning, after my brutal torture sleep, I realized my friend, C-Batz, had a scale, and since I’ve been trying to gain weight lately, I thought I’d step up on it.  For the past three weeks, I had been drinking two Mass XXX shakes a day and had been trying to eat…how many meals does a normal person eat in a day?…one or two…I was trying to eat three!  On top of that, I’d been going to the gym and working out.  As of last week, my arms had nice little muscles on them, like a girl who is moderately strong.

So I stepped up on the scale and it read an abysmal 133 lbs.  Therefore, I am temporarily quitting this whole gym/weight gain business.  It’s impossible.  Imagine if you were trying really hard to grow horns and then you realized one day, “Shit, humans CAN’T grow horns!”  You would give up, I would imagine.  I feel that’s a fairly good analogy for my current situation.  So, I am giving up; maybe next week I’ll change my mind.

It’s getting a little chilly in my apartment now, so I’m going to go blast the floor.


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.


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?”


Black Man Field Trip


Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan


George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?