The Passenger Seat of a Stranger’s Car


NEW YEARS FIREWORKS OVER LAS VEGAS STRIPThe fireworks have just ended and I’m standing by the side of the road with my hand out. It’s only fifteen minutes into the new year and already I feel hopeless. Cabs zip past me without stopping, people slumped over drunk in their back seats. I’m on the Vegas Strip with literally thousands of other people, all of us trying to flee for our homes. Apparently as soon as the clock struck midnight the Strip stopped being the place to be, and everybody just wanted to go to bed.

A black truck pulls up in front of me. The window rolls down and the dude driving it sticks his head out.

“Where you going, man?”

“Twain and Arville.”

“Twain and Arville?” he repeats, as though he’s asking himself if he wants to drive there. “Okay, I’ll take you there. Forty dollars.”

nye2012-07I look around the place. There are so many people and the streets are mostly empty, only a few cabs around. My phone (Samsung G4, a total piece of shit) is dead and it wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t, because the guy at the Uber tent (yes, there’s an Uber tent, with a bar and loud dance music and a bunch of Uber drivers parked outside) told me that T-Mobile (my carrier, totally shitty) isn’t connecting to Uber for some reason. And since they won’t drive you if you don’t request on the app, I’m out of luck. But I do have exactly forty-two dollars in my wallet, which means I can afford a ride from this random stranger.

“Forty bucks?” I say to him. “Let’s do it.”

He motions towards the passenger seat and I get in. We make a quick u-turn and almost immediately get stuck in traffic.

“Fucking New Year,” the guy says. “Everything is gonna be like this. Let’s see if we get around it.”

He drives the truck into the lane next to us – you know, the one for oncoming traffic – and bypasses about fifty cars stuck at a red light. We reach the light and he butts his way in, cuts off the car in front, and now we’re leading the pack. After a minute or two, we get stuck again.

“Forty bucks,” he says. “I should charge you two hundred.”

We start to talk. His name is Isaac and he’s from Eritrea, a small country located in Northern Africa. His hair is black and puffy; he looks middle-eastern, wears glasses and has stubble all over his face. He tells me that he’s lived in Vegas for almost twenty years. Has a wife and a three-year-old kid. He constantly mentions how English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it well, even though I think he sounds perfectly fluent.

“What about you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

Oh, where to begin. I tell him I’ve lived in Asia the last six years. First South Korea, then in China. I tell him that I’ve just moved to Vegas to start a new life. It sounds corny, and I worry that he might see this as an opportunity – I’m new and I don’t know anybody and he could easily kill me without anyone figuring it out for at least a few days. But that doesn’t seem to occur to him. He asks me why I came back to the States.

“I don’t know, man,” I tell him. “Just felt like it was time to come back.”

web1_photoeditor-1483288501023-1-_7700234Isaac drives like a madman. He weaves in and out of traffic, cuts down back alleys, honks his horn at any cars in his way. It’s a lot like being back in China, actually. It takes a half-an-hour to get onto the highway, and from there we’re set. The drive from the Strip to my place is actually only ten minutes or so, but most of the roads are closed for the holiday, which means we have to circle around. And so Isaac and I end up taking a little tour of Vegas, talking about language and culture and what it’s like to live in a country that isn’t your own.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Eritrea?” I ask him.

“No, no, no,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”

He drops me off at the apartment complex where I’ve been living the past three months. I open my wallet and give him the forty-two bucks. We shake hands. It’s after one in the morning and my apartment complex is dark and quiet. Isaac turns the truck around, gets onto the road and takes off. Maybe he goes home, maybe he goes back to the Strip to make more money. I just walk through the buildings until I reach mine, and after I get inside, I go out onto the balcony and smoke a cigarette.

It turned out okay. This is what I tell myself. I’m home and I’m safe, and it’s 2017 and everything is going to be fine. I realize that a lot has worked out so far, a lot has gone right, and that’s why I’m standing here on this balcony in Vegas. Looking at the bright lights in the distance, ready to start the brand new year.

I can see the Palms Casino, the neon glow of its colorful sign. I wonder if the lights ever go out there? Something tells me they never do.

One Week in the Life of an Expat, Detailed in Trips to the Corner Store


Sunday Night: It’s around six and I badly need to use the bathroom.  I’ve been out of toilet paper for two days.  That’s a slight inconvenience in having a girlfriend – toilet paper gets used up at a much more rapid pace.  I head down to the     7-11 on the corner.  There’s no point in delaying the trip any longer.  It’s not like these things just go away. As I enter the 7-11, I’m surprised to see that the girl behind the counter is young and very attractive.  Suddenly I feel embarrassed.  All I have to get is toilet paper; I begin looking around the store for other things to buy.  Maybe the toilet paper will seem like an afterthought, like I really came in to get a cheap sandwich and some cough drops and decided to buy a roll of tp just for good measure.  A few minutes pass and I can’t go through with it.  The mission is called off.  There’s no way I can force myself to set down toilet paper in front of this girl.  What would she think of me?  I’d be a repulsive animal, that’s what.  I turn my face away and leave.  There’s another 7-11 down the street, and I’ll go to that one.

Tuesday Afternoon: In half an hour, my second class of the day will begin.  Little kids.  Then I’ll have three more classes in a row after that.  I’m in a good mood.  The sun is out and I went to the gym earlier.  I rush out of work and head to the GS 25.  My boss gives me a funny look as I sprint out of there, still on the clock, but it doesn’t matter.  The lady behind the counter is a familiar face.  She always smiles when I come in and seems pleased when I say ‘thank you’ in Korean.  I grab two bags of ABC Chocolate, some fruit candy and some grape hard candy.  The woman smiles at me again.  She must know that I work at the school down the street, and she must figure that the candy is for my kids.  Based on this limited impression, she must think I’m a very nice guy.  I take all the candy, say my Korean ‘thank you,’ and leave.  The whole trip takes four minutes, costs 11 dollars, and will later inspire the kids to think, if only for one class, that I’m a pretty decent teacher.

Friday Night: The week has been long and I’m exhausted.  I go to the 7-11.  The cute girl from earlier in the week is behind the counter again.  I walk to the freezer section and grab two big jugs of beer.  I can sense someone standing behind me.  He’s too close – creeping into my personal space – and I am irritated.  I look at him.  He’s old and Korean, his face is red and he smells like cigarettes.  I go to the counter to buy my beer, and seconds later he’s right behind me with a few bottles of soju in his hands.  I pay and leave.  It takes a few minutes to walk to my apartment, and maybe another minute to wait for the elevator.  I step inside, but before the elevator doors close, the man from the store steps inside.  I’m going to the 6th floor and he’s going to the 5th.  The doors shut and he turns to me.  “We were in the store together,” he says in perfect English.  He doesn’t even have a hint of a Korean accent.  “Yeah,” I say.  The elevator reaches the 5th floor.  I can smell the liquor on his breath.  “We’ll see each other again,” he says, getting off.  “We’re both drinkers.”

Saturday Morning: It’s eleven when I wake up.  I go down to the Mini Stop to get some Gatorade and some microwavable rice.  I recognize the man behind the counter.  Way back at Christmas time, he was the guy who got my presents.  My sister mailed me a Christmas package, using the address to my school since I didn’t know the one to my apartment.  I came into school two days before Christmas and my boss, Leah, told me that the postman had left a note.  “There was package for you,” she said.  “No one was here, so postman left it at a corner store.”  She didn’t know which corner store it was.  At nine at night, I got off of work and went to at least half a dozen, searching.  I tried my best to communicate what I was looking for.  “Packagee,” I would say, trying to use Konglish.  “Christmas presents.”  The night was cold and it was snowing.  I’d already been rejected by the man at the Mini Stop but I went in and tried again.  This time, I saw the box behind the counter.  He laughed when he handed it to me.  I went back to my apartment and opened it.  My sister had sent blankets and five rolls of stick deodorant.  There was a letter, too, saying that she looked on the Internet and wanted to send things that were hard to find in Korea.  The man at the Mini Stop rings me up and I think back to the holidays.  I take the bag with the Gatorade and rice from him just like I had taken my Christmas presents and, just like back then, I leave thinking about people back home.


Drunken Malaise, One Year Contracts, and Tired Barhopping in Bupyeong


Toronto was leaving on Saturday, so we thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking one last time.  Of course we did – drinking is what people do to say goodbye.  Toronto was flying out of Korea and heading back to Canada.  He didn’t have a job to go back to but his time here was done.  Maybe he’d come back, he told us.

“I’ll be here,” I said.  Toronto would be another in a long line of friends who had gone away.  That’s how it goes when you live in a foreign country: work visas eventually expire and people get sucked back to their homes.  Their real homes.  Permanent ones.  In the last month, most of my friends had vanished.  Perkins went back to South Africa, Pierre back to Canada, Cindy to Chicago, Clare to England, and the list goes on and on.  It sort of reminded me of how much I used to hate summer vacation when I was at college.  For two months, everyone just picked up and took off.  I’d have to leave my fun apartment and move back in with my parents until school started back up.

I had never thought “vacation” and “punishment” could be synonymous until those awful summer breaks.

For Toronto’s going away party, it was only him, TTD, and me.  We started with a few drinks at Underground, and then went over to a popular Western bar called Goose Goose.  I sat at the bar and smoked and ordered whisky and cokes.  Thursdays at Goose Goose used to be packed; the place would be full of life, young people yelling and drinking.  There was an excitement there.  A community.  We used to go to Goose on Thursdays and everybody we knew would be there.  It was the place to go to play trivia and to complain about work and to plan the weekend.  But on this night it was dead and dreary, with just a few people sitting around a table or playing darts.  There was nobody there to talk to.  We ordered more drinks and decided the best thing to do would be to get drunk.

Goose was getting depressing so we left and went to Who’s Bar.  Toronto had something to do and stepped away for a bit.  TTD and I went in and sat at the bar.  The place was empty with the exception of the owner, Won Seok, and some of his Korean friends.  They were playing poker at a table.  We told Won Seok not to bother getting up and stepped behind the bar and poured our beers ourselves.  We sat there talking, and then TTD said, “Hey, you know…I’ve known you for a year now and I never asked you before…why did you get divorced?”

I tried to come up with some kind of a coherent answer.  The marriage felt like a lifetime ago.  Why did I get divorced?  I didn’t know.  My life three or four years ago had been so different.  I remember when Betty and I bought a house in Charlotte together.  The realtor gave us the keys early and we drove down at night, just to walk in our new home and know that it was really ours.  We went in and I remember how damn happy Betty was.  This would be the place where we would make our life together.  Our first real home together.

About a year later, I moved out.

After, when I came to Korea, I wanted to show my students pictures of the house back in the States, so they’d have an idea of what “back home” looked like.  Betty lived there now with her new boyfriend.  I typed the address into Google and I found it on a Real Estate website.  She was selling our house.  I had no idea.  For some reason, everything sunk in right then.  It was like someone highlighted a huge portion of my life and hit the backspace button.

TTD and I were bored and starting to feel miserable.  We walked back to Goose.  Everyone had gone.  The bartender was asleep and the rest of the staff was busy playing slow Korean music on the jukebox.  Toronto called and we went back to Who’s Bar.  There were two strangers there this time.  They were happy to see some signs of life, and they bought us Flaming Dr. Peppers and we all drank.  It was after three in the morning and the booze was starting to do its thing.  TTD and I were drunk and we told the strangers that we were a couple and that we met at an orgy.  The strangers seemed to believe that, or maybe they were just so drunk they would’ve believed anything.

Toronto sat there laughing at all of us.  I would miss him.

We decided to ditch the strangers and go to McDonald’s.  On the way, we passed an old man sitting on the ground and drinking soju by himself.  TTD didn’t see him and nearly stepped on him.  He shouted at her in angry Korean.  I can’t eat when I drink, so I let Toronto and TTD go into the McDonald’s and I sat down with the old drunk Korean guy.  He had a Dixie cup and he drank shots of soju from it.  I sat there chain smoking while he rambled on and on in Korean.  I would nod and sometimes say “ne.”  He pointed towards the McDonald’s every so often and his voice would get louder.  He seemed upset.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I kept nodding.

How the hell did I end up here?  In Korea, on the ground with a drunk old Korean guy.  Where was Betty now, and who was living in our house?  It was all so confusing.  I couldn’t get a grasp on anything, and the old man kept talking.

Two days later, Toronto flew back to Canada.  He emailed me the other day to say that he just bought a new washroom cabinet and some pillow shams.

It seems like life has a funny way of moving on, even when you don’t really want it to.


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


In the Land of Kimchi, there are yellow garbage bags, and there are white ones.  Both have writing in Korean on them that I don’t understand, and neither seems to come in the size of what I would consider a normal garbage bag to be.  Don’t get me wrong – they come in a variety of different sizes, ranging from small to very small to super teeny tiny.  The yellow one is for food and the white one is for everything else.  I believe plastic bottles are also supposed to be separated, but I’m not sure.  Once filled, a person puts their garbage out somewhere in front of their apartment building, where it is later picked up at some point in time.  By someone.  Possibly a city worker.  Maybe with a garbage truck.  In truth, I really have no idea what the hell happens to the garbage.

This is about as deep as my knowledge on the trash system in South Korea goes.  In America, disposing of garbage made some sense – I had a specific spot where I was supposed to leave the garbage, there was a specific time on a specific day when a company that I paid came and took it.  In Korea, things aren’t quite the same.  I have never once seen a garbage truck or a garbage man, and yet they must come around at least once a day to get rid of all the trash.  There are very few dumpsters or public garbage cans, and trash seems to be disposed of randomly here.  Like what you would generally consider littering seems to make up a good portion of the Korean sanitation system.  Every day when I walk to work I pass about a hundred garbage bags thrown all over the street, some free floating trash, a billion cigarette butts, and usually a nice puddle of vomit someone left from the night before.  It’s messy, sort of like Korea is a teenage boy and the streets are its bedroom.

Another difference between Korea and the US is that a person has to purchase regulation garbage bags in order to throw their trash away.  Obviously this is sort of a fallacy, as I saw all sorts of shit dumped in front of my last apartment building, and the box for a large pizza can’t even fit in a garbage bag unless you cut it up into pieces.  Seriously, I filled two regulation garbage bags once with one empty pizza box.  But I digress – one is supposed to only throw away trash in regulation garbage bags.  My first week in Seoul, about a month ago, I violated this rule, was caught doing so on hidden camera, and thus became the most hated waygook in all the chopstick-lovin’ world.

Finding regulation garbage bags in Incheon was easy.  The convenience store by my apartment had them sitting by the register, near the strawberry flavored condoms.  But in Seoul, the rules of the game are different.  Convenience stores don’t sell garbage bags, and so I would leave with only a few packs of strawberry condoms and absolutely no place to throw my trash.  Only one store had anything remotely similar – they were actual, regular size garbage bags and, subsequently, they were not government regulation.  With no other options, I bought them.  For the next week, my first in Seoul, I threw all my leftover food, empty milk cartons, large pizza boxes, and the vomit I had left from the night before in one big bag.  When the bag was full, I tied it off and then wondered what to do with it.

I knew that I couldn’t throw the bag in front of my apartment.  It wasn’t regulation.  The last thing I wanted was to look like the dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to behave as the locals do.  So one morning I snuck out into the street with my enormous garbage bag, deviously planning to inconspicuously dispose of it.  I saw some trash bags sitting outside a different apartment building and thought that I would simply toss my bag over with them.  Who would know?  I walked over briskly and dropped my bag with the others.  They looked good together, especially since my bag was so much larger.  It was like a group of friends, and all cliques need at least one enormous fat guy.  Anyways, I went back to my apartment, proud of my work, thinking the entire garbage fiasco was over.

I was wrong.  An hour before my workday ended, my boss, Leah, came into my classroom.  “Bill,” she said, “did you throw garbage-ee in front of an apartment building this morning?”

Her face showed concerned.  I was thrown.  How did she know?  “Um, yeah…” I mumbled.

“Oh!” she bellowed, then stormed off.  She came back later, and when the kids were gone she sat down on top of one of the desks to talk to me.  “Apartment owner had hidden camera set up and has recording of you throwing very big trash bag in front of building,” she said, devastated.  “He came here because he knows there is foreign teacher.  He showed me tape and it was you!  He will sue you for illegal trash dump!”

“Sue me?” I asked, bewildered.  “He can do that?”

“Yes!” Leah said.  “Why did you throw trash there?”

I then had to explain how I knew I had the wrong garbage bag, didn’t want to look dumb, and purposely tried to dispose of it on the down low.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “I will talk to him,” she said.  “He is very angry!”

“Can I talk to him?”

“No!  I will talk.  You can’t speak Korean.  What will you say to him?  Ahn-nyoung-ha-say-o?”

Having Leah talk to him probably was the smarter tactic – despite being my boss, she’s young and very cute.  If anyone could derail the lawsuit I was threatened with, it was her.  Still, I felt angry.  Hidden camera?  Seriously?  How much could he possibly sue me for?  Really, it was all Korea’s fault anyways.  Why had they made garbage bags harder to find than stick deodorant?

The next day, Leah pulled me into the office.  “The government will come to talk to us today,” she said, and an hour later two men in suits came.  They didn’t say one word to me, only spoke in deep voices to her.  Leah kept pointing at me and looking surprised.  Finally there was silence.  Everyone looked at me and I giggled uncomfortably.  The government men, thankfully, laughed too.  When they had left, I asked her what was said.

“It is okay,” she told me.  “I said you are stupid foreigner and didn’t know.  They said this will be your warning.”

“So it’s over?” I asked, in my stupid foreigner voice.  “There’s no lawsuit?”

“Yes, it is over,” she said, kindly.  “I will take you to grocery store tonight and we will buy garbage bags.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  Even though I have been living in Korea for over a year, the stupid foreigner card still worked.  The trash lawsuit was over and I was able to focus again on my classroom.  I had a few minutes before the students would come and I spent the time straightening the desks, cleaning the board, and throwing away old worksheets in the cardboard box Leah had given me to use as a garbage can.


The Friend Prevention Team


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

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

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

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

And that’s when things got complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Questioning My Homocceptance


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

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

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

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

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

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

Or wear a skirt.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lulu Battles Hipsters in Hongdae and Suffers a Crushing Defeat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like Lobo?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, in mass exodus, they started leaving.

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

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

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

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


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?


Man on the Tracks


Each morning, I leave my bed the way a kid leaves home for the first day of school, miserable, wanting to go back, possibly crying, and I find myself thinking about the night before and the day that lies ahead and mixing the two up into some kind of anxiety-ridden fog.  That was certainly the case on the Wednesday morning I left for Hong Kong.  There were so many things to be worried about.  It was like a buffet of stress.  There was my flight, which I was nervous I’d be late for.  Then there was the idea that I’d be spending six days in Hong Kong and I hadn’t planned a thing.  I had no place to stay, no sense of how much the currency was worth, and no real itinerary of things to do.  And to add to all that, there was a certain girl whose apartment I had just left.  She was still sleeping when I headed down to catch the first subway train.  I thought about how much I liked her, and how I hoped that my side of the bed would still be empty when I got back.

All this is to say, on a day when I should have been excited, I was instead overcome with the enormous realization that nothing about my trip to Hong Kong felt right.  I would be spending six days alone in another country, probably not talking to anyone and going to bed early to escape loneliness.  Part of me wanted to go back to the girl’s apartment and curl up with her.  I sat on a bench down by the subway tracks.  Going back was a bad idea.

I was thinking about her when an older Korean man standing about twenty feet from where I was yelled something out.  He sounded serious.  I had no idea what he yelled, as it was in Korean and, despite living here for almost a year, I have no grasp of the language.  I turned my head, though, as the noise demanded attention.  In doing so, I could barely make out the image of a young man walking down the subway tracks.  Not on the platform I don’t mean, but walking down the tracks themselves.  I looked up at the board to see if the train was close.  It was two stops away.

It was as though every person waiting for the train noticed the young man at the exact same moment, suddenly everyone began shouting and running.  Everyone except me, that is.  I continued to sit there, looking down at the guy on the tracks with mild interest.  Things like this don’t happen, right?  That’s what I asked myself.  Yeah, there was a man on the tracks and the train was coming, but people don’t just get crushed on the subway tracks in front of you.  It didn’t seem possible.  I was sure someone would help him up and he’d walk away fine.  For all the horrible daily events that happen in the world, for each car crash or electrocution or brutal animal attack or mugging, none of it seems to happen in my world.  Secretly, I hoped the train would come and run the man over.  Just to spice things up a bit.

But as I had assumed, nothing really happened.  A subway officer was rushed to the tracks and he went down and helped the man back up onto the platform.  The man didn’t put up any fight.  He did exactly what the officer told him to.  Back up on the platform, he staggered away.  He was obviously drunk.  The subway officer pulled himself up off the tracks and then led the man away.  The shouting and running around ended, and in a few minutes everyone got on the train like nothing had happened.

Taking a seat on the train, I thought about a couple things.  First, no matter how bad I might feel, there’s probably someone around who feels worse.  I might be sitting by the tracks feeling depressed, but there’s someone who feels so bad he jumps down on them, and for that person maybe there’s someone who feels so bad he actually lets the train hit him.  And secondly, I thought about how rare true disaster is.  For all the anxiety, all of the possible catastrophes, nothing much happens really – the man always gets off the tracks before the train comes.  Things have a tendency to be right, even when they feel all wrong.


Endings at a Park


The list of unspeakables had gotten long.  Ashley and I sat in the park near Incheon’s Arts Center, eating sandwiches and watching the children play in the enormous fountain.  My chicken wrap dripped mustard sauce like sweat; it was a Sunday and the sun was bright and warm.  Summer was just stepping to the front of the line, the heat of the days making things like breeze and shade more valuable.  The children in the park ran through the fountain to cool themselves off.  Ashley and I sat right in the sun.

“Have you noticed that we’re the only non-family here?” she asked me.  It hadn’t dawned on me, but she was right.  Everyone in the park was either a parent or a child.  When a little girl fell down, there was always a mother there to pick her up.  Boys played catch with their fathers.  Sometimes the children would walk past us and, seeing the lightness of our skin broadcasting that we were from somewhere else, they would wave to us and say “hello.”

A relationship between two people – whether it be friendly, romantic, or some sort of mixture of the two – is only as good as the list of unspeakable things is short.  Ashley and I sat in the sun and talked about movies, feminism, and childhood.  We laughed when a small boy took off his clothes and urinated in the fountain.  Still, our list was there and I could feel it stuck between every pause in the conversation.  It was all the bad things that had happened between us – the people that couldn’t be mentioned, the nights that had gone bad.  Certain words, like “lawyer,” had grown fatter in meaning because of the things I’d said.  Simple questions like “what’d you do last night” changed into inquiries, switching from conversation to control.  Those questions weren’t simple any more.  Questions have memories, and my questions were filled with the memories of those nights when she’d left me alone to go off with other guys.

But there had to be something that brought us to the park on a hot Sunday afternoon.  It wasn’t coincidence, or boredom, or the allure of eating a chicken wrap and getting mustard sauce all over our fingers.  It was the three months we spent together, talking for hours every day, making each other laugh and becoming great friends.  When there’s a list of unspeakables, something must be there to keep two people pushing past it, making conversation in the face of it feeling forced and awkward.  Or at least a person likes to think so anyways.  Like every sentence she said told me that no matter how much she might have hurt me, she was still there.

Every now and then, the water in the fountain would stop, and the children, their wet clothes soaking up the heat, would wait anxiously for it to start again.  Some of the little ones would wander around, confused.  Still, they seemed to know where they were, aware that they were inside the confines of something – the park, the fountain, their families – and if they would wander away from the collection of children at the fountain’s center, they would never have walked too far away.  Not so far, they seemed to know, that they couldn’t turn and come running back to the water when it started up again.  It would only take a few beats to rejoin everyone, in the heart of the fountain, where all the complexity of the world was washed away by giant geysers of white water shot five feet up in the air.  I wondered if, at the end of their day, headed back home to dry off and get ready for school the next morning, those children, thinking back to their Sunday in the park, would feel like smiling or like crying.

Monday morning I called Ashley.  I was exhausted.  I told her that I cared for her, and then I told her that I couldn’t handle having her in my life anymore.  Our list had gotten too long, the hurt too much.  Strange, isn’t it, how empty one can feel when they know they’re doing the right thing?  It must’ve felt, I imagined, the same way those children felt leaving the park.  I suppose the end to anything, no matter how good or bad the events that preceded it, is always at least a little bit sad.