Friday, May 29, 2009

The Descent of Men

I'm so sore I can barely walk today (what are joints like that doing in a nice guy like me?), but I made a brother and friend, so I guess it was worth it.

With less than three months left of my stay in Daegu, it occurred to me on my day off yesterday that I really ought to do some of the things that people really ought to do here. I had tried to find Apsan Park twice before, early in my stay here, once with Ray, when we ended up hiking up a steep, steep road for a long, long time, and once alone on my birthday, when I found a deserted war memorial but nothing else. The problem is the lack of signage; there are barely any directional signs at all (none in English), no maps, and a bunch of random roads, paths, and walkways winding around, and up, the mountain.

But yesterday, I was determined to find it, whatever "it" turned out to be. It's a major endeavor; it took a 20-minute walk to the subway, a 20-minute subway ride, and a 40-minute walk to even get to the wrong side of the Apsan Ringway, the eight-lane highway with a concrete barrier in the middle and a plethora of crazy Korean drivers zooming by, then a 10-minute walk to find a tunnel under it in order to get to one of several unmarked paths up the mountain.

Finally, somehow I stumbled on the lower terminus of... what do you call those big boxes with windows where you dangle from a wire and hope the power doesn't go out or you have to be rescued from over the East River by Sylvester Stallone? Cable cars? Gondolas? Yeah, that.

I don't know how it happened, but when I was a kid I loved to fly and never minded dangling from cables, but somehow since then heights have become a major problem for me. Every time I hike Palgongsan, I look at the cable thingy and shudder: I can't do it, it'll drop like a rock, I think I'm gonna puke, I just can't. My fear of heights doesn't make a lot more sense than the broom phobia of that corgi in the ancient Disney's Wide World of Color episode... remember that? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Well, does anybody remember the famous line from Risky Business? I keep my language clean on the blog (if nowhere else), so I'll just say the next line: "If you can't say it, you can't do it." Anyway, I just shrugged and said it and got in the little metal box. It's funny; I know most fears (whether they're of brooms, mice, or Kim Jong-il with nuclear warheads) are built up ridiculously in the mind. I guess I finally figured that if I survived hours above the Arctic Circle in a tin tube with wings, I'd manage five minutes fifty feet over the treetops. And I did.

It feels odd, being among two dozen people looking down on two and a half million. I had bibimbap at the little restaurant at the top, and hiked up a little higher to the very top of the mountain. This is what it looks like from there: (hit the play arrow!)

As I was about to start down, I asked a Korean man, entirely in gestures, whether it was possible to hike down to the east, the direction I came up from. He said no and pointed northwest; then he decided to hike with me. His sunny nature and wine-tinged breath overcame my natural surliness and we had a splendid hour hiking down together, periodically attempting conversation with my two dozen words of Korean and his four dozen words of English. We determined that he was 54 Korean years (53 in American) old and I was 55 American years (56 in Korean) old, and he declared, with a manly handclasp, that we were brothers and friends.

It's good to have a brother and friend along when you're inching down a hideously steep trail studded with thousands of pointy rocks in your oh my God, Steve, you're a bleedin' idiot sandals, longing for the hiking stick you left home and half-praying that you don't gash open a toe, fall on your spine on a rock, wrench an arthritic knee, pull your tight calf muscles or lose a nail because your long second toe is continually being jammed into the lip on the front of the sandal. Anyway, we had a jovial if nerve-wracking time, passed a temple on the way down, determined that I like maekju (beer) and he likes soju (Korea's national drink, made of equal parts crude oil and sugar), that it was hot, and that we were brothers and friends forever. Then I shook his hand at the bottom and will never see him again.

Having temporarily overcome two bugaboos of mine, heights and talking to strangers who don't speak English, I determined that I could still walk despite my left knee's objections, tramped another 40 minutes to Duryu Park, took the subway to Home Plus and shopped (anticlimactic after the mountain trek, but you guys, they gots pancake syrup!), took the subway to Manchon, hobbled for a half hour to get home, crept up my stairs, plopped my butt down, pulled up a couple of cats, used my hands to lift my feet up onto a chair, and said, "Aaaaaaaahhh."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

North Korea, nukes, and namaste

I've gotten a few messages from friends on Facebook wondering how I'm doing, what with the Dear Leader up north running another nuke test and firing off another test missile.

It doesn't seem to be making much of a stir here, aside from the tv news', as one would expect, devoting a fair amount of coverage and some headlines at the newsstands. (I think that's what they're about; of course, they're all in hangul script, but if I'm reading them right, they either say "We're All Going to Die in a Radioactive Hell" or "Kimchi Prices Up Five Percent".)

Actually, for me the biggest practical annoyance has been that and Hulu block all NBC programs from being seen here, and in trying to watch this week's SNL, the only clip I can find of the Celebrity Jeopardy skit with Will Farrell as Alex Trebek, Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery, and Tom Hanks as a terminally dim Tom Hanks was made by some guy with a cell phone pointed at his tv screen, and I can't hear it even with headphones because of the ROKAF jets screaming over every few minutes. That's nothing new, but it is more frequent. Inconsiderate creeps.

It's always in the back of my mind that technically the ROK and the DPRK never signed a peace treaty, just a cease fire. There's a Korean army encampment two blocks from my apartment that runs for a mile alongside one of the main thoroughfares, and once I move to my new job, I'll be living within an hour of the world's last Stalinist state. which has nukes. But unless the Dear Leader up north is way, way crazier than I think, nothing's going to happen in the foreseeable future. I'd be more afraid if I lived in a big American city, knowing that the North could sell plutonium to some shady people with grudges.

Here's the thing, though: our species' technology has advanced just a bit faster than our morality. We're boiling the planet, we have the means to blow everything up real good, and we're still in the Dark Ages of our morality. We've got slavery, child prostitution, and genocide, just like five thousand years ago, but now we don't have to just hit our enemies with sticks.

If there's hope for the distant future, it has to be in the reformation of the individual human mind, an awakening of compassion and kindness on a scale that's never been seen before. We-- all of us who call ourselves human-- have to follow Christ in forgiving our "enemies" and follow Buddha in treating every being with compassion. A lot of New Thought writers, such as Eckhart Tolle and Marianne Williamson, say that this is the key moment in history, when humanity begins to awaken, and that we'll see it happening faster and faster. I only pray that they're right.

...and all of that is why I don't eat animals (suffering is suffering, killing is killing, and having somebody else do the deed for us does not absolve us), why I close my emails with "peace", why I work to contain my own anger, and why I'm risking alienating you with what may be a sanctimonious, pompous (and to a degree, I'm sure, hypocritical) blog entry.

In rereading this, it doesn't sound right. I don't think I quite got it, and I care about how I write things. But it feels as if, this time, saying something imperfectly is better than not saying it at all.

Namaste, my friends.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Legends of the fall

Every morning, I wake up, blink blearily two to three hundred times, struggle upright, sometimes easing around Tiki, who's sleeping up against my back under the covers, wade through Tug, who will not stop rubbing against my legs and meowing till I pick him up (and against whom I have to close the bathroom door; invariably I have to reopen it slowly, as it will pass right over his recumbent form), fire up the coffee, fire up the computer, and groggily stare at the screen.

Well, this morning I was greeted by a big scarlet banner on "KOREAN EX-PRESIDENT DIES IN FALL". That is, he fell while hiking in the mountains; it's not a death threat for next September.

I absolutely guarantee that there will be wild rumors swirling. Logic says he probably jumped. (The cops say he left a suicide note, but they have a history of not always telling the truth.) But maybe he just fell. Or... was he pushed? Stories will be spreading quickly, I'm certain; fortunately for me, I won't understand what anyone's saying.

Roh was president from 2003-2008, coming to power trumpeting a certain antipathy to the United States but becoming wildly unpopular when, among other things, he sent Korean troops to Iraq. He fell (sorry) from power in a bribery scandal and probably would have been prosecuted if not for the Japanese-derived legal system, which discourages prosecutors from indictments unless they're certain to get a conviction.

The whole thing is a reminder of something that lurks just under the surface of this seemingly secure democracy: this country has a pretty sinister political history since the war, rife with military dictatorship, coups, a Tianenmen Square-style massacre of over 200 people in Gwangju in 1980, and the torture death of a student protester that led to the establishment of a true republic, just 22 years ago.

Even now I see headlines that the government is demanding that history textbooks be rewritten to be more "fair and balanced" (my words, cleverly chosen to invoke connotations from the US media, heh heh). Riot police practice fending off attacks by bamboo-wielding protesters. Students periodically get their undergarments in a twist about something or other, usually something anti-American. (Shortly before I came over last year, it was the government's reopening the country to US beef imports; I saw restaurant signs saying "We serve only Korean beef.")

The very fact that thousands of us have jobs teaching ESL is because the government determined that Korea needs English to thrive in the international business community. They could change their minds anytime, though I doubt that they will; I suppose there could be another coup sometime, for that matter. Meanwhile, they spend their days (when not having fistfights in the National Assembly) dreaming up ways to make it more difficult to get, or renew, a teaching visa. Some countries run on bribes, this one on red tape.

In rereading this post, it all seems very paranoid; it probably is. None of this affects my day-to-day life, and Korea seems pretty stable these days. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, May 22, 2009

These are a few of my favorite things

...hey, how did that start getting played on all the 24-hour-a-day-Christmas-song stations, anyway? Snowflakes? Brown paper packages tied up with strings? Yeah, that's a great presentation of a Christmas gift. (Though one very good friend used to present presents in a plain old paper grocery bag, which-- if you know him-- was oddly endearing.) What? Oh, yeah...

Partly out of a choice to simplify my life and partly out of necessity, which is to say a lack of both big bucks and space, I'm living with far fewer things than I ever have before, and I like it. There comes a point, after all, when your stuff owns you. (Remember George Carlin's routine about stuff?)

As the saying goes, "The best things in life aren't things."

Nevertheless, there are a few things that have become pretty important to me.

Above all, of course, is my laptop. My first month here, without an Internet hookup, was grim. My computer keeps me in touch with my friends via email, Facebook, Windows Messenger, and Skype. I can watch tv shows and movies, write, keep up with news, run this blog, occasionally play games (download Plants vs. Zombies right now, by the way), and listen to all of the Mets' games... okay, most of those things are good.

Next is my iPod Shuffle. The first thing I need to say here is that I've always been a snob about running; real runners don't use treadmills and they don't listen to music... the whole point is to get out and experience the world, dontcha know. But I find I can run a lot more frequently using a treadmill, as it doesn't rack up my knees, and listening to music while running really does make the time go by. (Best running songs? Jump by Van Halen and Fighter by Christina Aguilera. Worst? Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens [a.k.a. Ali Cat] and absolutely anything by Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Enya, or William Shatner.)

Even better, though, is the endless stream of free podcasts that pass my time walking to work or riding the bus. Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and Real Time with Bill Maher always brighten up the first part of my week, and there's news and commentary, Marianne Williamson, Doctor Who commentary, and podcasts about the Mets. (Never mind.) For awhile, I was listening to stuff every chance I got just to fill time, but now I've become more selective and I'm not afraid to just live with my thoughts sometimes. Sometimes.

Then there's my bead bracelet from Donghwasa, but I've written about that before. Peace.

And there's my Mets cap. It's amazingly versatile; it keeps the sun out of my eyes and the wind off my hair; it warms me in the cold and shields my glasses from the rain; it's part of my low-tech but effective personal-temperature-control system (layers of clothing on and off, the same with the cap, walking in the sun or the shade); it links me to my past, as I've had a genuine Mets cap for over 40 years, and to my Dad, with whom, if nothing else, I could always talk about the Mets.

So that's about it for my indispensibles, I guess.

Oh, and the Moon. I love the Moon. It's hard to believe somehow that the same orange moon rising over the mountains to my east shines on Ithaca and St. Augustine and shone on Christ and Shakespeare and the first Neanderthal.

What? Okay, I'll shut up now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Yes, we have no bananas" a phrase that would make perfect sense to a Korean. "Neh, panana upseoyo", at least, would: "Don't you have any bananas?" "Yes, we don't." One of the first things a foreign teacher learns is not to ask a negative question; you will always get "Yes, I don't" as the answer. That struck me as screwy, but I finally realized that it makes as much sense as "No, I don't".

Another thing that takes some getting used to is the numbers. Not only do they have Chinese numbers for buses, room numbers, phone numbers, and so on (il, i, sam, sa, o...) and Korean ones for counting (hana, dul, seht, neht, daseot...), but large numbers go in multiples of ten thousand: two hundred thousand, for example, is "i-ship-man", twenty ten-thousands, or, if you really want to break it down, two-times-ten ten-thousands. This struck me as screwier than Carrot Top on speed, but I finally realized that it's just as logical as going by thousands. Except... except... they still put the commas every three digits, in the Western style.

Oh, and the months have no names. There's just one-month, two-month... my birthday is ten-month, two-times-ten six-day.

On the way home tonight, I cut through the huge neighborhood park behind E-Mart. It has a quarter-mile circular dirt path that's very popular for exercisers when the weather cools a bit. As I moseyed counter-clockwise around the path, there were literally a hundred or more Koreans striding manfully (and womanfully and childfully) around the path, singly, in pairs, and in groups, every one of them apparently intent on walking for fitness, and every single one, of course, going in the opposite direction from mine.

I bet the Korean word probably means counter-counter-clockwise.

Saint Elsewhere

Heeduk's mother, Mrs. Kim, is based, along with Doctor Kim, the founder and educational leader of the enterprise, at the Samduk school, the heart of the LIKE operation, and takes care of all the business operations, such as hiring, negotiating contracts, allocating teachers to individual campuses, and packing as many commas as possible, as I have done here, into one sentence.

The other day, she approached me on behalf of Heeduk and asked me to sign up for another year at LIKE. I told her that it isn't final yet, but I expect to be working at the St. Paul Preparatory Academy in the Seoul suburb of Bundang, starting in the fall. I've actually sent back the signed contract to SPPA; now the only thing left is jumping through the world-class red-tape obstacle course set up by the South Korean government. It's not entirely clear, for example, whether I need to get another criminal background check done in Tallahassee, complete with apostille, despite the fact that I've been in Korea ever since I got the last one nine months ago. But all systems should be go.

Mrs. Kim and Heeduk were disappointed to hear that I'm planning to leave (which, I must admit, is good for my ego), and she said that they could offer me a raise but couldn't match St. Paul's offer, which is for 500 bucks more a month than I'm making now. It's more than the money, though; St. Paul will let me be an English teacher, not primarily a foreign language teacher, again, with classes in American and British literature, writing workshops, and so on. It's a career, not a stopgap. It's what I'm trained for and what I'm good at. (Sorry: at which I am good; damned ending-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule.)

Also, the Korean operation is part of a network based in Minnesota (St. Paul; this is not a religious school), with schools in Europe, so perhaps I could eventually transfer to France or Germany; I'm not in love with Korea. I've taught at St. Joseph Academy and St. Johns Technical High School, which is part of St. Augustine High School, in St. Augustine, St. Johns County, and now I hope at St. Paul Preparatory Academy.

The Saints have preserved me. Perhaps I should change my name to St.ephen.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


It won't be any great shock to anyone to hear I'm an Ithacan through and through. I have its zip code in my email address, I'm constantly wearing the t-shirt my friend sent with "Ithaca" on the front in Korean characters, I dream in forest green and Cayuga blue... if I were to pick five labels to place on myself, they would probably be Ithacan, American, vegetarian, Cornellian, and carbon-based life form (or possibly Ithacan again). Oh, yeah, and teacher. I should add that.

I've missed Ithaca so much for 14 years. If you've lived there, you'll understand (even if you don't fully share the sentiment; the weather's pretty crappy, I admit). If not, you'll have to take my word for it: waterfalls right in town, the hills, the lake, the town Utne Reader named "the most enlightened city in America" and (right-wing nutcase magazine) Free Republic calls "the city of evil"...

Today I signed into the "you know you're from Ithaca if..." group on Facebook and read several pages regarding "something you remember that isn't there now". Oh, mistake. The Temple Theater, the old library, the older library, Andrews' candy shop, Johnny's Big Red Grill ("Wait! What happened?!) The list brought it all (but me) home. Now I don't know if I'm homesick for Ithaca, or for 1970.

In some ways, I'm better off away from Ithaca; I do better with more sunlight and there are too many shadows of who I used to be. Still, I've always had it in the back of my mind that one day, when I have enough money to live out the rest of my life, I'll return to Ithaca. (Current calculations put the date in mid-September 2038.) But I know that most of the people I cared about have left, geographically or otherwise, and the town has changed and, I imagine, will change more. But its heart is still Ithacan, like mine.

Yeah, I got it bad.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"If wanner you don't hot is pretend to be around to"

...I read it on a t-shirt, so it must be true.

A pretty girl is like a malady

What you see above is a plastic surgeon's ad, which I found on another blog, illustrating the modern Korean ideal of beauty: Caucasian, basically. Young women, often to better their chances of getting hired, sometimes have surgery on their eyelids and cheekbones to look more Western.

It's kind of ironic, really, considering how many Western men find East Asian women attractive; seems that, for some, being a pretty-but-Asian-looking woman is almost considered a medical problem. Okay, that's way too strong, but it does allow me to use the title I slapped on this post.

Koreans also, apparently, find lighter skin attractive, possibly as a holdover from the days when it was a sign of status to be able to stay out of the sun, unlike fieldworkers. Now that the hot sunny days are here, I see a lot of women using umbrellas. Either they think they're Mary Poppins, they're performing an homage to Rene Magritte, they're Zapruder film re-enactors, or they're trying to keep cool and untanned.

Also, many, or most, store ads use Western models and most cartoon characters, which are used heavily in the media, look Caucasian.

...and that's precisely the kind of hard-hitting social commentary you've come to not expect from my blog. So let's see what else is going on...

Yesterday was an odd, traveling about and doing nothing kind of day for me. I taught in the morning, got out at 1, as I do one Sunday a month to go to Writers' Group meetings, took the bus downtown to Club That (erstwhile home of our base, Hami Mami's, and still our gathering place), only to find no one there but Pill-kon, our one Korean member, sitting at the picnic table in the courtyard. After 15 minutes, nobody else came, so I left. Then I got a phone text from Justin saying he'd be late because he was finishing lunch, joined him and his girlfriend at the Holy Grill for a beer. bought some sandals, went home and boldly went where this man has gone before, taking a nap.

(By the way, Star Trek movie? Terrific.)

It was a hot day, up to 93 Fahrenheit, but we're still in that short period where it cools off at night, and come dusk I had to get out into the world. The three of us were woefully short in the cat-litter department, so I took the bus to Costco, about a 20-minute ride. It's always fun horsing the 30-pound jug of litter, along with whatever else I've bought, onto the bus to come home.

This time I had a slice of delicious horrible wonderful fatty heavenly greasy Costco pizza, which I took out to the bus stop because the tables inside were taken. I was hurrying to engulf it when the 323-1 bus pulled up, I shoved the pizza slice in its box into my bag, and I hopped on.

Well, here's the deal. The 323 bus runs a big loop counterclockwise, the 323-1 the same route clockwise. I take the 323-1 to Costco and the 323 back home. Unfortunately, your greasy-fingered friend here hopped on the clockwise-loop bus this time. No biggie, right? Probably I'll just have to ride a little longer. How long could it take?

Well, I didn't know the 323-1 from Costco visits the west side of town (but at least I got to see the Woobang Tower in its multicolor floodlit glory), every backstreet in Daegu, and I think, parts of Shanghai as well. It took 95 minutes to get home, but it seemed longer because I kept wondering when we were going to turn around and, as we finally got back into my neighborhood, whether I'd recognize the stop in the dark from the direction opposite to the one I'm used to, or have to walk a half-mile uphill with a 30-pound container of cat litter.

Still, my newfound serenity helped; I was much less tense than I would have been before I found a spiritual path. I would have been having kittens over it in my neurotic, crisis-mode way not that long ago. I once was lost, but now I'm found. Even when I'm lost.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cute overload

I was just doing my cool-down walk after my run on this hot, sunny Daegu day when a woman and a little boy (three years old?) came along in the other direction, Mom carefully carefully shielding the little guy from the sun with an umbrella. As I drew abreast of them, the boy solemnly performed a bow from the waist to me. His mother burst out laughing and I laughed and said, "Annyeongaseyo!" ("Hello!")

Too cute.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Parting is not such sweet sorrow

I've always hated, hated, hated goodbyes. I hate goodbyes to people, to places... heck, to tv shows for that matter. I still get a little choked up thinking about the last chapter of "House at Pooh Corner", and I read that 50 years ago. I've come to realize that all this has to do with fear. Marianne Williamson says everything we feel comes from either fear or love, and I think she's right... I've been doing much better than ever before with letting go, with accepting that everyone and everything comes into our lives and leaves again. I've been cool, really.

But now, I'm feeling just a tinge of sadness... you know, the kind you get with the first cold rain in the fall, when the gutters start to pile up with leaves? I'm more than two-thirds of the way through my contract at LIKE. I have my next year's job lined up--sent back the signed contract and all. It's at the posh prep school in the Seoul suburb of Bundang that I got an offer from last year, eight hours too late. It's more money, more challenge, a real career-type job (Monday through Friday! Daytimes!) Maybe even a chance to transfer to Europe in the future... but I digress. (When do I not?)

Anyway, the autumnal precipitation metaphor has to do with having to say goodbye to my friends, and surprisingly, to Daegu. Hagwon (supplementary academy) jobs are revolving doors; very few people stay at a particular school for over a year. I've know all along I'd have to say goodbye pretty soon to my new friends. The fact that Ray's going back to the States in about two months is bringing it home. At any rate, the fact that my friends will be rotating out somewhat obviates any sadness over my going to Bundang.

But... for the longest time, I had no real use for Daegu, which I've thought of as Korea's Cleveland... no RnR HoF, though. It's a big, polluted city known mostly for industry. No Americans come here unless they're in the Army or teaching; there's nothing in town to draw tourists. (Actually, the capital is the country's seoul attraction.) I didn't know anyone, any places, or much of anything. But in the last few months, making friends like the ones I see in the writer's group and learning my way around a lot better have changed the way I feel. Seeing DJ the restaurant owner on the footbridge and having him greet me by name (which I wrote about a couple of entries ago) left me nonplussed, or at least only minimally plussed, but it felt really good. I'm somebody to somebody in Daegu.

Daegu has slowly become manageable and liveable for me. I know the stores and theaters and buses and subway lines (and the ballpark!) and have a feel for the people. It's hard to believe that a native of Ithaca and longtime St. Augustine resident could find a city of two and a half million cozy, but I kinda do. The city's planted thousands of trees in recent years and is working hard to make itself a good place to live, and I never thought I'd say it, but I'll miss it.

Speaking of goodbyes... this is going to sound morbid, and I don't mean it to-- I don't feel morbid-- but just recently it's begun to hit home that one day I'll die. I mean, duh, we all know that we'll die, but somehow I've just started to feel that it's real, it's not going to happen to some nebulous not-really-me, that I'm actually going to be there when it happens. And how will the Earth ever get along without me?

Yeah, I'm enlightened, I'm cool, I'm detached. Goodbyes still suck.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Your brain is too tense."

..."Too tense?"

"Yeah, too-tense the size of a normal brain." (As Moe said to Curly.)

It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this post except the word "tense", but it's 1:40 a.m., I've been home for 20 minutes, I just drank a screwdriver, light on the OJ, and right now I don't care a whole bunch. (About much of anything, actually.)

(By the way, what do you call vodka with milk of magnesia? A Phillips screwdriver.)

At work, I've been moved largely into working with kids on their essays and SAT-style grammar problems, shooting videos about grammar, and proofreading and revising the school's 1000-question grammar workbook.

The proofing of kids' papers can drive me nuts after the first dozen or so; today's highlight was "she became a periodic human vegetable". But it never occurred to me until this evening just exactly how difficult English must be for these kids. Here it is:

The Korean language has no articles (a, an, the), no plurals, no differences between subject and object forms, and no verb tenses! All of these items are implied by context in Korean. Very roughly translated, a Korean might say "I sandwich two thing she make" for "I made her two sandwiches." So it's great fun to teach the kids the difference between noncount nouns (music, jewelry) and count nouns (song, necklace), articles (a dog vs. the dog), subjects and objects (I vs. me), and tenses (I went vs. I have gone). And you can just defenestrate "I will have gone." As David Steinberg said in a different context, "It's like explaining alternate-side-of-the-street parking to a cranberry."

I got off work at 1 a.m. tonight, by the way, fifteen minutes after the last kids left. I'm not jealous, though; I started at 7:30 p.m., they at 8:30 a.m.

Everybody here still crazy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday in the park with me

Having come home late last night after seeing Wolverine with Luke and Joanna and gotten up early this morning to go teach, I coffeed my way through school from 9 to 3, and then, filled with resolve to make something special of my day, came home and took a nap.

Sadly, I had to wake up eventually. I tried to figure out something interesting and different to do, but eventually, just before six, I gave up planning and just went out to walk wherever my feet decided to go. The weather was just gorgeous today, in the mid-70s, and sunny and dry, and I had to be out in it for awhile.

My feet decided to wander down to the park area by the river where I go running. I scouted out the little amusement area to which I'm hoping to get my friends to come: batting cages, mechanical bull, carny games, little roller coaster, swingy-back-and-forthy pirate boat. Also, nearby, noraebangs, bars with little private karaoke rooms. They are ubiquitous. On any given evening, 73 percent of all Koreans are at either a PC bang playing computer games or a noraebang. In further news, 91 percent of all statistics are completely made up.

Then I walked along the waterfront, watching a flotilla of duck boats being paddled around. A rather leathery Korean man greeted me, in English, like a long-lost friend. Turns out he lived for forty years in LA, and I guess he was just eager to keep his English fresh; the sign as you enter my area of the city says, "Welcome to Suseong-gu. Population, 750,351 Koreans. And Steve". I'm the Anglophone Committee. His name is Toby Oh. (Great name for a cereal, don't you think, Toby-Os?) He asked me to sit and insisted on giving me his phone number and getting mine. He helps his brother-in-law rent out duck boats; I told him I'd try to come back on Tuesday with my friends.

My feet decided to go across the footbridge over the river; halfway across, I saw a very attractive young Korean couple. The woman was tottering across the plank bridge in heels, as tentative as a fawn on ice; the man broke into a big smile and said, "Steve!" I couldn't have been more surprised had the earth spun off his axis or the Mets run off a three-game winning streak. The only problem is, I couldn't place him.

It turns out he's DJ, the owner of Gulliver's Travels, a downtown restaurant that Ray took me to earlier in the week. By the way, I'll keep going back there; DJ's English is practically better than mine (well, yours... I kid), so for the first time in eight months, I can tell somebody what I can and can't eat. He fixed me some wonderful veggie quesadillas that day; thought I'd died and gone to Chili's.

I found out at the far end of the bridge that they'd doubled the charge to cross; it's three bucks American for a round trip now, which seems a bit steep; for that, somebody ought to come out and carry you. I may not continue walking over the river to the Home Plus store. But I did today, got a few groceries (all right, soy milk; ears of corn, as always, shucked and shrink-wrapped; Tesco Cranberry Wheats cereal; and Lotus Brand Original Carmelised Biscuits all the way from England, if you must know.) I also noticed that the store escalators are labeled "Schindler", which makes me wonder if the company is called Schindler's Lifts...

On the way back, it was just dusk and still lovely, and I decided to walk the long, long free route back home, along the dirt embankment rising above the east side of the river and over the big auto bridge.

I wish you had been there: indigo sky overhead with a just-over-half moon, hints of pale blue-gray away off in the west, the last of the duck boats returning to their berths, the red and blue neon of the little amusement park and the motels shining across the river, and off on a hill to the left, a floodlit ornate Buddhist building shining like noontime. I wish you'd seen it. I can still see it now.

I think I've found my place, in a way. I often go hours without meeting anyone I can talk to, which means I'm of necessity set apart, thinking my own thoughts and just being. Walking through the city this way fits me, for better or worse. Right now, I think it's for better. I'm connected to the people I want to be connected to, and content in my sometime isolation.

I'm happy, and Daegu is my home. Wherever I am is where I'm supposed to be.