The Sheep Cafe: Cause Nothin’ Complements a Latte like Livestock

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As a fan of random, pointless things, I was drawn to Seoul’s “Thanks Nature Cafe.” With all these Starbucks everywhere, little independently owned establishments need a gimmick to survive, and the Thanks Nature Cafe has…well…a unique one. Mixing high-end coffee with a small herd, the cafe is home to not just one, but two (yes two!) sheep, who live in a pen right outside the front door. Why? Don’t ask questions like that. Just drink your coffee and behold the wonderful sheep decor the interior boasts.

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The sheep live in a small fenced off enclosure, down in the center area between the coffee shop and a few stores. There’s a little doghouse (sheephouse?) for them to go in when they feel they’re lacking privacy. In the summer, the weather gets too hot for them to handle and the sheep are taken away. I’m not sure if this hurts business, but one would guess it would, just as removing the animals living in other coffee shops likely diminishes their revenues as well.

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What more is there to say about the Sheep Cafe? Um, not a whole lot. I’m told that the place makes visiting Australians feel at home, and that the cafe owners frown upon shearing. Really, though, I’m happy places like this exist. As much as I love Starbucks, it hasn’t exactly helped in making life less boring. Take Starbucks and its copy-cat knocks-offs and add them to all the ubiquitous corner stores and supermarkets and fast food joints. Human consumption has gotten really dull, the art of sitting in a chair at a table and putting something in one’s face. At least by having the two awkward sheep outside, I felt like I was experiencing something different. Taking part in a special happening, including myself in a hip scene.

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I read on PBS.org that sheep can recognize each other and can also recognize human faces. In addition to making me want to write a really bad mystery story (picture this – police lineup of criminals, a sheep brought in to identify the murderer), knowing this makes me want to go back to the Sheep Cafe. I want to be recognized. I want the Starbucks girl to tell me apart from the other customers, but that never seems to happen. Maybe a couple ewes will take the time to notice. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

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On Leaving Korea: Hands Off My Mayo, Punk

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The broccoli in Korea has vanished. I’m not sure where the hell it went, but it’s gone. For the past two weeks, the area of my grocery store that used to be home to the broccoli has vacated, as though the broccoli packed its things and headed West, in search of a new place to live where it won’t always have to play second fiddle to kimchi. It didn’t go alone, either. The broccoli apparently convinced the salsa and green olives to go with it. Everything in the grocery store seems to have disappeared. There’s no chicken and I can’t even find the brand of tuna I like. Sometimes I walk into the grocery store, throw my arms up in despair, and leave with the hope that the loss of my business will encourage the little Asian lady that works there to hire some private detectives to go get my broccoli back.

In about one week, I’ll be gone too. I thought about that as I scanned the shelves for mayonnaise. “Get the smallest container you can find,” I said to myself. In a few days, I’ll be out of my apartment and some new guy will be taking my place. He’ll teach my students and sleep in my bed, which I guess were only ‘mine’ for a limited time to begin with. “Don’t buy a big thing of mayo,” I continued. “Get something you can finish in a week. I’m not stocking this next fucker. He can go buy his own damn mayonnaise.”

I don’t know why I’m so against leaving things for the new guy, but I am. The ironing board and toaster oven I bought will be going to my girlfriend as slightly used presents. I look at the new toilet seat I recently installed and shake my head, “That lucky guy doesn’t know how good he’s got it.” The new toilet seat is amazing. It’s like a throne. It’s so good, sometimes I pee sitting down just for the luxury. And now it will be his, whereas, when I arrived, I was handed over something vastly inferior. I inherited a pink bed and a half-eaten cake in the freezer.

If you’re curious, I replaced the bedding and no, I didn’t finish the cake.

Leaving a place where you’ve lived for any amount of time can be a lot like breaking up. When I got to this apartment, I found it ridiculously small and shabby. A couple months later, I didn’t even want to be in this country anymore and I certainly didn’t have much fondness for my job. But now that I’m leaving, I’m only able to see all the good qualities in everything. I’m filled with regret. “I love this place,” I find myself thinking. “I love this apartment and I love Korea and I love all my students. Oh my God, what have I done? I’m leaving the best thing I ever had!”

It’s exactly like how, after a breakup, the girl quickly goes from intolerable to amazing, and suddenly I don’t want to part with anything. Get rid of the pictures of us together? You’re crazy, man! It’s almost the same way I won’t let go of the toaster oven. That shit is mine, and it’s going to my girlfriend’s apartment, so I can come back in six weeks and, I don’t know, make toast I guess. Lots and lots of toast…unless the chicken and the broccoli are back by then.

Similarly, just as the first person you date after a breakup doesn’t seem good enough, my next step – backpacking around Europe for a month and a half – seems tedious. I go through the Lonely Planet book, jotting things down, going, “Yeah, I guess I’ll go to Stonehenge…it’ll pass the time until I come back.” No one has ever been as melancholy about going to Europe as I have been. The Louvre? Oktoberfest? Nah, I just want to sit in my little apartment. On the toilet seat.

Maybe before I leave, I’ll write a short letter to my replacement. “You’re getting a tiny apartment,” it will say, “a job that will exhaust you, and a grocery store that doesn’t stock any food. Congratulations, you lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

*

Snapshots of the Boryeong Mud Festival

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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.

*

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

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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.

J

I

Z

“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.”

*

You Abandoned Me with a Cockroach: A Love Story

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It was 7:30 one Thursday morning and I was sound asleep, curled up like a potato bug in my girlfriend’s pink and purple bed.  I can’t say with much accuracy exactly what I was dreaming of, although, given my dream history, it probably involved either playing with a big bunny or losing my teeth.  In other words, my attention was fully absorbed in something exciting.  I’d gone to bed at 1:00 the night before, and my alarm was set accordingly, programmed for 9:00 so that I would be getting the standard 8 hours of sleep that every human must have.  That’s a requirement.  Go under that number and you will be exhausted; go over it and you will officially be a lazy bum.

Suddenly, a harsh, loud, pounding noise pulled me from my rest.  It was my girlfriend, slamming on something by the kitchen sink.  My head hurt and my vision was blurry.  I longed to go back to losing my teeth.

“What the heck are you doing?” I asked.

Delicious Coconut: Toolkit Required

“I’m opening this coconut,” she said.  She had a coconut in one hand and was banging on it with a giant hammer like she was John Henry workin’ on the railroad track.

“What?” I moaned.

“I want to drink the coconut water,” she said, and proceeded to keep whacking away at the thing.  I briefly entertained the thought of going back to sleep.  The coconut had no quit, though.  As opposed to helping my cause by just plain breaking open, the stubborn thing refused to yield, remaining as impenetrable as a bank vault, and so I gave up and dragged myself out of bed.

Sleep is an important part of my life.  I do it every day and often look forward to it. Being in a relationship is also important, although it sometimes makes sleeping a lot harder.  Since I’m happy in my relationship, I try to accept not getting enough sleep or being woken up.  Sure, it’s a little annoying, but it’s more imperative to be a good boyfriend.  I try.  I’m generally supportive, spend lots of quality time with my girl, and often tell her that she’s beautiful.  Too often in today’s society, women feel that men only want them for their personalities – I like to remind my girlfriend that I also love her for her physical appearance.

What I’m getting at is this: If one had to choose but one thing, would one choose love or sleep?  It’s not a very interesting question, as this is typically not a decision a person must make.  There are times, though, when it’s as paramount as anything.  In the instance of the coconut, I suppose I could’ve gotten grumpy and told her to be quiet.  I didn’t want to be that guy, though, and so I chose instead to let it go.  I chose love over sleep.  Also, I don’t want my girlfriend to feel controlled or inhibited in any way.  If she wants to smash open coconuts with a sledgehammer at 7:30 in the morning, she has the right to make that decision.  Just as I have the right to purchase coconut water in a can and present it to her shortly before throwing her hammer in the Han River.

On another occasion, though, I had a bit more difficulty dealing with the love/sleep dilemma.  It was on a weeknight, and I was stressed because I had an especially hard day ahead of me at work.  My girlfriend, as she always is, was impeccably sweet and comforting.  Around 1:00, I decided to call it a night and shut my eyes.  Two hours later, I was woken by the blaring sound of my girlfriend’s security system.

I would feel so embarrassed trying to describe the Korean thief to a sketch artist.

“Baby?!” I hollered, shooting up in bed.  The door slammed.  The security alarm was still going off.  My girlfriend was not in the bed with me.  The room was dark and my head started spinning.  What the hell was going on?  I wondered if I was going to have to fight somebody, and tried to remember where the giant hammer was kept.  Just then, the door re-opened, with my girlfriend standing in its outline like I was looking at a photograph of her in a picture frame.  She typed in a few numbers and the alarm went off.

“Sorry,” she said.  She was fully dressed.  “I have to go to the store.”

“The store?  Now?”  I looked at my phone.  It was 3:15 in the morning.

“I saw a cockroach in the bathroom,” she said.  “I can’t sleep.  I have to go get repellent.”

No one has the right to be afraid of cockroaches until after they’ve seen that last segment of Creepshow.

My girlfriend’s apartment is nice and clean, and she likes it that way.  The presence of a cockroach was too much to stand.  It had to die, and it had to die now.

“Can’t this wait until later?” I begged.  “I really need to sleep.”

“No,” she said.  “I can’t stay in here with the cockroach.”

“Maybe it’s friendly,” I said.  “You really have to go now?”  She nodded.  “Well, I won’t be able to sleep with you awake and fighting bugs.  I’m going to walk back to my place, then.”

I can’t explain precisely how my mind was working.  It was very decisive, sort of like a dog’s.  When a dog’s owner throws a stick and tells him to fetch, he either goes or he doesn’t.  A dog never stops to ponder, thinking about his owner and asking himself, “If I don’t go fetch, how will that make him feel?”  All I wanted was to sleep, and so I put on my clothes and left.  I split.  I chose sleep.

My girlfriend sent me a text message the next morning.  It said, “I can’t believe you abandoned me with a cockroach.”

All made up.

Yes, yes I did.  It’s one thing to abandon your girlfriend; leaving her alone with an insect makes it worse.  If it wasn’t for sleep, I feel none of this would’ve happened.  That’s my defense.  Luckily, we were able to work out the abandonment incident and I was able to return to her apartment, which is now equipped with a cockroach patch.

This morning, I was again yanked from sleep by a loud sound.  In the alley in front of my girlfriend’s place, people walk around with wheelbarrows, picking up recyclables that they can sell.  Today I was woken by the grating screech of someone’s wheelbarrow tires; it was as though he was barreling along and a cat or a small child ran in front of his wheelbarrow and he had to slam on the brakes to avoid vehicular homicide.  My eyes snapped open, my brain confused.  But there was my girlfriend, with her head tucked up against my chest.  My arms were around her shoulders and hers were around my waist.  Our legs were intertwined.  The wheelbarrow also woke her up, and her sleepy eyes looked up and met mine.  It was, really, the most beautiful way to start a day.  The morning sun came in through the window and everything was quiet again.

*

Black Goat Tonic

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(Note: This post is extremely weird and dark.  Its focus is the underbelly of Asian alternative medicine.  A particularly ghastly recent news event is talked about in some detail, and some of the other content might not be for all readers.  Just a little warning: this isn’t funny and could be upsetting.)

My girlfriend handed me the McDonald’s bag and, as I took it, I was well aware that there was no Big Mac or any other delicious item from the Golden Arches sitting inside of it.  No, instead there was some strange juice concoction that she had gotten from a relatively remote area of South Korea, at my request.  It’s called “Black Goat Tonic” and is derived from what is occasionally called the KNG, or “Korean native goat.”  The KNG, or “black goat,” is something of a super animal; during the Korean War, much of Korea’s animal population died.  Oddly enough, the goat population continuously increased.  It was as though the goats were impervious to the perils of war, rising up as if they were planning to take control of the entire country and form a post-apocalyptic goat society.  Sadly, for the goats, things didn’t work out so well.  By the year 1997, 500,000 goats were being killed every year for their extract fluid.  It was that extract I held in the McDonald’s bag, which I would later ball up and stuff into the back of my refrigerator.  I had no idea how much the goat extract cost or what process was used to obtain it.  All I knew was that it was in my refrigerator, and I had requested it.

Strange medicine had been in the news a lot at the time.  In early May, Korean customs officials seized over 17,000 pills that contained the remains of dead babies, turned into powder.  The pills came from China, where there has apparently been a black market for “miracle cures” and “rejuvenation pills” dating back many, many years.  In the case of these particular pills, aborted or still born babies were sold to underground drug manufacturers who took the bodies, stored them, dried them in what is called a “medical drying microwave,” transformed them into powder, and combined that powder with various herbs to create the pills.  They were marketed as “stamina boosters.”  It is unclear who exactly was buying them, how they arranged to receive the pills, or how many pills had gotten through without being seized at customs.  According to the San Francisco Times, tests of the pills concluded that they were made up of 99.7% human remains, and scientists were even able to determine the genders of the babies used.

“What the hell is this world coming to?” I thought when I first read this story.  It was astonishing, like something out of a horror novel.

“I’ve heard older people say that things like that are good for the skin,” my girlfriend said, discussing the pill incident.  “That if you ingest something like that, or a placenta, it will make you look younger.”

Now, I have no doubt that my girlfriend has never and will never go near anything like that, but she had heard of it, and that was weird enough.  The alternative side to Asian medicines doesn’t stop there, either, as I’ve read, nor is it contained to Asia.  In 2011, three species of rhinoceros were driven to either extinction or near extinction by poachers in South Africa who killed the animals and ground up their horns to sell as miracle cures.  Similar problems have occurred with bears and sharks, whose body parts are also consumed in Chinese folk medicine.  I’d wondered before what the world was coming to, and as I read more, I began to realize that the scary truth was not that the world was progressing into something dark and dangerous, but that it wasn’t, for some, progressing at all.  The culprit here wasn’t some smooth talking salesperson; the real criminal was the past, tradition, years and years of beliefs that can’t be shaken.  Is there medical proof that swallowing a pill made from a baby or eating a shark fin has any real value?  Of course there isn’t.  But there is faith, and hence there is the existence of such thing as the pills, and the shark fins, and the goat juice tucked away in my fridge.

Black Goat Tonic is said to have many uses.  It can assist with mental fatigue, impotence, and can also thwart off age-driven problems like osteoporosis.  I was told that it could stimulate weight gain and muscle growth.  Drinking my first glass of it was a curious experience.  It comes in small pouches which contain enough liquid to fill about a third of a cup.  The tonic is a dark greenish black and has no real odor.  It tastes a bit like soy sauce with wasabi in it and can be slurped down in two or three large gulps.  In truth, it really isn’t that bad or offensive.

Africa Black Ant Sex Tonic

I didn’t know much about it other than the name for awhile.  I’ve since learned that it’s taken from the body of a young goat, about 4 months old, whose carcass is boiled for 22 hours.  The liquid is filtered to remove fats and then sold in 100 mL bags for $2 a pop.  Looking in the mirror at myself, it is yet to be determined if the tonic does in fact result in any discernible physical improvement.  While writing this, I wondered why I’d gotten the tonic in the first place.  Why was I, in essence, doing something I didn’t believe would work.  Desperation?  A lack of confidence in whey protein?  I suppose it was nothing more than curiosity, and the never-ending hope that my skepticism is wrong.

It’s a bizarre world we live in, isn’t it?  But who am I to judge it?  I have my opinions and beliefs, mostly from the Western world I was raised in.  To me, looking at the alternative medicine products available on a Chinese website is bewildering:  W+ Skin Cream Placenta Product, Bird’s Nest Skin Tonic Serum, Africa Black Ant Sex Tonic.  There’s a whole different reality out there.  It’s easy to call it sick or foolish, to think of it as the antithesis to modernity, scientifically ignorant to the degree of being dangerous.  At its core, though, it’s essentially very human.  It is, like all medicine, driven by the fear of dying.  Of aging, of loss, of ceasing to be oneself.  From a fundamental standpoint, there isn’t that much of a difference between a rhinoceros pill and, say, chemotherapy.  Or at least I would like to think that.  There’s a comfort in similarity, and thus I seek it out.  And so I try to tell myself that the world isn’t as strange as it sometimes seems, and that life itself isn’t a hard thing to sell, whether it’s in a hospital’s austere whiteness, or the shadows of a place where people buy horrifying miracle cures.

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(Acknowledgments: Most of the information here comes from two articles.  The first is “Thousands of Baby Pills…Discovered by Officials in South Korea” by Richard Shears and Rob Cooper for Dailymail.co.uk.  The other is “The Marketing of the Goat in Korea” by T.G. Min, K.O. Kong, and H.B. Song.)     

Such Is Life: The Disappointing Trip to the Floating Island

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Here I am at Seoul’s man-made Floating Island.  You may notice that I am giving the middle finger. Perhaps that needs an explanation.

My weekends are precious to me. How precious?  Remember how Gollum used to call the ring “precious” in Lord of the Rings and he’d get all kooky about it?  That’s exactly how I am in regards to the weekend.  On the rare occasions when my job asks me to come in on Saturdays, I nod politely and then spew an expletive-laden rant to the first person I see logged into Facebook chat.  And if nobody’s logged in?  I spew it to myself.  Weekends are made of gold.  I would happily trade five Mondays of my life for one extra Saturday.  Yes, I’d be shortening my life by four days, but it would be worth it because I’d be getting a Saturday in return.  Hell, who am I kidding?  I’d trade ten Mondays.

So each time the magnificent weekend rolls around, I try to plan something interesting and unique, something that maximizes my invaluable time.  Yesterday, after looking at a few web pages about things to do in Seoul, my girlfriend and I decided it would be a worthwhile venture to see the “Floating Island.”  What island isn’t floating, you might ask.  Atlantis?  It would be a good question.  Islands, from what I also thought, all float.

This – prepare to be shocked – turns out to be untrue.  Islands don’t float, in fact. They’re the tops of underwater mountains, the bottoms of which are connected to the ground.  Seoul’s Floating Island, on the other hand, is a man-made venture, costing a measly $10 million.  They are made up of three structures which have no foundation holding them to the floor of the Han River. Hence the “floating” in the name.  The three are connected to each other by wires that run under the water.  To the untrained eye, they don’t look like “islands” so much as they look like big floating shopping malls.

On the Korea Tourism website, the Floating Island is called an “amusement park.” Different websites talk about performances on the islands and other cool stuff there.  All of that is to say, it sounded like a fun place to check out.  They are the largest man made floating islands in the world. So why the heck not?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question.  Why the heck not? I’ll tell you why the heck not: cause they ain’t open, that’s why.  Apparently the islands were closed on May 22nd due to worries that rain could cause unforeseen floating problems.  This information, which might seem noteworthy, does not appear on the Korea Tourism website.  They apparently have taken more of a “surprise the tourists” stance.  And surprise this guy and his girlfriend they did.  We arrived to find the islands completely inaccessible, not even connected to anything remotely close to the land.  They were deserted and empty, just big metal things floating by themselves in the river.  There was a wedding going on by the islands too, which added to the confusion.  We looked on helplessly as our Saturday went up in smoke and a nice Korean couple made a decision they will surely regret (marriage).

Oh well, oh shucks, such is life.  At one point in time, I would’ve felt frustrated, but I’ve grown accustomed to things not working out as planned and so I shrugged with acceptance.  The Floating Island (which really should be plural I feel) re-opens this Wednesday, June 20th.  I will not be returning to see what I missed.  I will instead assume it is amazing.  Our day was not a total loss, as the park nearby was nice and we ate ice cream on a bench.  Later, there was some sort of water display that featured the bridge over the river shooting big streams of colored water down into it. Everybody ooed and awed.  Eh, who am I kidding?  No they didn’t.  Everybody just sort of looked at it because it was there and it was something happening.  We watched it twice for the hell of it, once when the sun was still up and once after it went down.  Maybe this one wasn’t a Saturday I’d trade ten Mondays of my life for; it was worth two or three though, especially if those Mondays aren’t during football season.

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