Monday, June 28, 2010


My trip to California was, despite its rewards, horribly timed for me in the sports category. First, the only specific thing I wanted as far as sightseeing went was to go to a game at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers left town on a road trip while I was in the air to the States and came back the day after I returned to Korea. Also, I'd really been looking forward to joining a big Korean crowd for a World Cup match on a big screen; the first Korean game of the first round happened while I was flying east and the last the day before I flew west.

Fortunately, the Taeguk Warriors (that's the official name of the team, "Taeguk" being the yin/yang symbol on the flag, but everybody just calls them the Reds) made it through to the second round. On Saturday, then (having returned on Thursday evening Korea time), I looked into where to join a frenzied mob of Red Devils (fans) for their second-round game.

The big public viewing spots were at City Hall and Hangang Park by the river (coincidentally the spot where my recent 5K and 10K runs were held). Each of these venues had hosted over 10,000 fans for each of the first-round games, and that's exactly what I was looking for: screaming, singing, partying among a host of crazier-than-usual locals.

But the game would be over about 1 a.m., the forecast was for 90 percent rain, and the prospect of walking home five miles-plus, assuming I didn't get lost (which was a big assumption) in the rain, in the dark, after the subway stopped running...

I settled for the CGV theater in the ritzy shopping area of Gangnam, which set aside three screens for the Korean tv broadcast. The room I was in held about 125 screaming, chanting, red-clad fans. We chanted "Republic of Korea" ("DAE-han-min-guk!" clap-clap-clapclapclap) and shouted at the screen and pounded the inflatable plastic sticks that the theater gave us and just had a wonderful time. The moment when Korea tied the game halfway through the second half was a moment of pure joy that... well, you usually can't get that feeling in public.

But finally the Reds were edged out and we all filed out quietly to join the subdued but orderly Red Devils (many with still-glowing plastic devil horns on their heads), milling about the main drag. There was a large number of cops deployed to keep order, but they weren't needed.

I walked home in an intermittent drizzle. On the way, I passed three young people who responded to my scarlet "Korea Fighting: shirt by chanting "DAE-han-min-guk" and cracked up when I joined them in the rhythmic clap. I got home, oozed into bed, couldn't sleep (damn jet lag), and got up to blearily stare at the US losing their game, going back to bed again at 5:30, about an hour later than I've been waking up each day (damn jet lag). But I'd like to end this post with a couple of more positive thoughts.

First, I was the only non-Korean I saw inside the theater building and I was older than anyone else there by about thirty years. I've gotten used to seeing very few Westerners and, whether walking around downtown Daegu or in Gangnam, I generally stand out in the crowd as much for my white hair as my ashen skin and funny eyes. The positive thought? That's fine. Somewhere along the line, I stopped caring about being different. For a long, long time in my life I never wanted to stick out. Now I just don't care; wherever I am is where I belong. I'll write more about this if I ever get my thoughts together enough to blog about my California trip.

Also, during the game's first half, the two twenty-something women sitting to my left at the theater saw that I didn't have a pair of the plastic cheering sticks. Each of them gave one of theirs to me and spent the rest of the first half holding one each, beating them together awkwardly but endearingly. At halftime I went out to the lobby, got my own sticks, and gave theirs back with thanks. This is a small thing, but it's a reminder to me that, however xenophobic or closed Koreans may seem as a group, individually they often show real kindness and consideration to a waegook far from home.

Or am I far from home? Wherever I am really is where I belong. DAE-han-min-guk.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Just another manic Sunday

Yesterday was a long, exhausting, and fulfilling day.

The lead-in was less than stellar, as a whole bunch of idiots were playing basketball (not horse or just shooting buckets, but an actual game with lots of yelling) outside my window till past 1 a.m. I finally got to sleep about quarter past and got up at 5:45 to get ready for the long trip back to Hangang Park by the river, where last week's 5K race was, for this week's 10K.

The trip there involved my going the wrong way on one subway line (for one stop; I ain't a compleat idjit) and then, when it looked as if I might miss the race, jumping the barrier in a deserted subway station because the turnstile thingy wouldn't recognize my T-Money card though it had lots of credit on it. I kept expecting the K-cops to come bursting out of some booth whence they'd been surreptitiously monitoring the station and grab me, but they didn't. Haven't yet, anyway. I'm not answering my door, though, if somebody rings it.

I was getting frustrated and nervous at the site of the race, a huge grassy square with tents set up on three sides. I went here to pick up my race number, but they sent me over there, where the people sent me back over there, where they sent me back to the original here, where they still couldn't find my name. None of these folks spoke English, of course; last week I had my student Hanbyel with me to negotiate such things, but dot dot dot.

Perhaps it's because I kept asking, "Yeodol K?" Silly of them not to understand what I meant; they didn't recognize "K" as short for kilometer (though it is phonetically Korean for "dog") and... um... it may not have helped, as I realized later, that yeodol is actually "eight". (Yeol is ten.) So apparently I was asking them something about eight dogs.

Then I tried to pick up my goodie bag for the race, which included a World Cup-themed Korea running shirt, compression shorts (though I'm not sure I want my giblets compressed) and running tights. So the here people sent me back to the first there, where... ah, heck with it, I finally got the goodies. Then I went over to the Seoul Flyers (running club) tent and met Jae, the Korean-American president of the club, who was wonderfully friendly, with whom I talked till somebody came up and told me that the 10K people were making their way to the starting line, so I had to weave my way through thousands of warming-up runners and ended up with a bunch of fit guys who had no idea what I meant when I asked them if they were lined up for the 10K. No, they were marathoners... anyway, you get the idea.

In Korea, they usually seem to run a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon and a full marathon together, each race starting a few minutes after the one before. The warmup time is something to see, with some guy screeching exhortations over the PA, some very hot girls in very hot pants (What?! I'm old, not dead) shaking... well, everything... to the latest K-pop hit, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which actually has nothing to do with Dick Van Dyke and crew), and everyone giving his neighbor, in unison, shoulder rubs and shiatsu massage.

I finally did get to the right starting line, where Jae (stop thinking about the hot girls in hot pants and refer back two paragraphs) remembered my name and insisted on taking my picture:

Yeah, Steve you look confident now...

I hoped to run 10-minute miles, or just a touch better, and finish in an hour or a tick over. For the first half of the race, the road was so crowded it was practically impossible to negotiate around people, but I seemed to be doing okay: where they marked the end of the first kilometer, I was at exactly six minutes. Perfection. Then, at the 2K mark, I was at 10:15. (Wha'? Why, 2K?) That was my first hint that their measurements were fallible. It's also about then that I began to notice that it was getting, as my Grandpa Davis used to say, hot as the hinges.

The race was entirely unshaded and it was over 80 degrees (Fahrenheit... I think) and the air was typical downtown Seoul, thick, rich, and a great complement to a sandwich. But I kept on, feeling pretty good, keeping the pace up, on target (if I could only keep buggering on) for a 55-minute finish. The last few kilometers were rough, hot, and hotter, and my body was telling me to slack off, when I remembered what I'd told Hanbyel the week before when she was trying to finish her first 5K: "Sometimes you have to tell your body to shut up."

Finally, I crossed the line in 53:15, faster per mile than the 5K I ran six weeks ago (which is pretty darn unlikely). I realized that, according to the markers, I'd run the last kilometer ridiculously fast, so the course was obviously a little short, but even at 55 minutes (my best guess of a legit time), I was stunned: just six minutes slower than I last ran a 10K, 30 years and 25 pounds ago. Whew!

I took a little subway detour on the way home to go to my favorite bookstore (and possibly evade the manhunt still going on for me at that other subway stop) and finally made it home to relax and mainline ibuprofen for a little while...

...till it was time to head for the ballpark. I can reach Jamsil Stadium, where the Twins and Bears play their home games, in a half hour by bike, all along the path by the water. I met our principal, Ron, and his son Geoff outside the stadium, where Ron did me the favor of snapping this charming pic of me in my newly-won running shirt:
That's a giant baseball glove covered in grass, by the way. And a giant American covered in a newly-won t-shirt with a typically mangled Konglish phrase... am I fighting Korea? Is Korea fighting something? Is it a geopolitical statement?

And, to make a long, long story microscopically shorter, we had a nice time at the game, though neither team had their cheerleaders, which I believe is against federal law. Then I rode my bike home in the gloaming. Koreans, by the way, stay out of the midday heat, but by Jumpin' Jay Howdy, they come out after dark: kids on bikes and skates, ajummas walking purse dogs off the leash, couples strolling hand-in-hand, bikers, runners, half of everybody wearing black against a black background, all progressing on the left of the path, on the right, in the middle... but as you might guess, I made it home alive eventually, sore, exhausted, and happy... till I remembered I only had eight hours till the Monday morning alarm, barely enough time to marinate in ibuprofen so I could get out of bed in the morning.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not negligible

Ever since the sinking of the RoK ship Cheonan, sane people have been keeping one eye on the news. The Koreas have, legally speaking, been at war for 59 years now, and certainly our friend Mr. Kim up there, moribund though he may be, is capable of a lot of strange stuff. I've thought all along, though, that (whoever gave the order to sink the ship), the North Korean regime isn't crazy enough to initiate their own self-destruction. I still think that, and the South has taken a more-than-reasonable approach; twenty million people (in Greater Seoul) make for a pretty big chip to risk. So I'm not too worried. But I am paying attention.

Still, The New York Times calls the risk of war "not neglibible". It's just possible that some yahoo on either side of the border might start shooting over nothing, and we know that the North's government is perfectly content with millions of its citizens' dying... I guess a lot rides on China, which seems to be saying it's not going to support any more craziness KJI tries to pull. To put it indelicately, apparently they would pull their hand out of the puppet's... well, you know.

I, like every American who's got two brain cells to rub together, am registered with the US Embassy. We all get monthly bulletins in our inboxes, and the Embassy will contact us toot-sweet if we need to bug out. (I just hope I don't get the same Jeep as Frank Burns.)

Meanwhile, it feels rather like being in a tornado or earthquake zone and keeping alert. What's shocked me is that I (the second-most egocentric person I know [no, I'm not implying that you are the most]) am most concerned about my students; I'm mostly thinking how tragic an invasion or rain of missiles would be for them. That's not like me at all. Or... maybe... it finally is. And that, for me, is the upside of the Cheonan crisis.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The die is cast

...I've registered for the Joongang Seoul Marathon on November 7. (Incidentally, I hope that the word "die" won't come up again in the context of the race.) I will be starting, and I hope finishing, at the Olympic Stadium along with 23,999 of my closest friends.

My running's generally going along really well, considering I just cannot lose even one of the twenty pounds I need to take off to alleviate the pounding on my creaky knees. On Sunday, I ran for a solid 75 minutes, the most I've done at once since I worked myself up to 90 for awhile on St. Augustine Beach several years ago. I'm comfortably cruising at 10 minutes per mile, which is pretty slow, but two years ago I was laboring to do a half-hour at 10 1/2 to 11 per.

I tried to get my cross-country kids to enter the Bada 5K this past Saturday; I picked that one particularly because most of the races are on Sundays and Ecllid has to be in church. I'd hoped that Buyoung, Laura, and my fellow teacher Susan Kim would enter, as they had a great time at the race a month before... Buyoung wasn't interested, Ecllid forgot to enter, Laura's mom didn't send the entry fee, and Susan registered but had been under the weather, so she didn't come.

That left Hanbyel, who was so upset a month ago when she hopped on the wrong bus and missed the race, and me. Getting to the race was a trip and a half: seventeen subways stops, a transfer, and a half-mile walk. The setting was beautiful though, right along the Han River, in the shadow of the National Assembly building on the overlooking hill:
There was a huge crowd, split among the marathoners, halfers, 10Kers, and 5Kers. An actual Korean road race is just like an American one, but the intro and the outro aren't. Beforehand, thousands of runners do mass stretches to K-pop songs and cheerleaders, and at the starting line, you're exhorted to rub the shoulders and then pound the back of the person standing in front of you. (More about the outro later.)

As to the race itself, it was really pleasant, nice and cool, though so crowded on the out-and-back course that it was hard to feel really free to run. Hanbyel was really nervous, never having run more than 20 minutes at a time before, that I thought I'd better toss my idea of running as strongly as I could and coach her through it. By the second half of the race, she was too winded to talk, but I kept chattering, trying to take her mind off her discomfort, and she made it, 35:12, running all the way. At the end of the race, she wanted to die, but within a few minutes she was positively glowing; you get such a feeling of accomplishment from a new personal best! For me, it feels good to be a coach--of sorts--again.

I'm truly proud of her, especially as the race came just ten hours after the school's performance night, when she performed with the Dance Club, played the flute with the orchestra, and did the Meryl Streep role in Mamma Mia.

Afterward, we sat down by the river for a bit and opened our post-race prize packages:
To the victors go the spoils: sticky bun, peanut butter crackers, medal, and 317 dead fish. (I wish I hadn't said "spoils".)

I think I'd rather have the usual bananas, bagels, and Gatorade from an American race. A nice lady took a picture, using Hanbyel's phone, of Hanbyel and me, but the phone seems to be hors de combat. If Hanbyel manages to send me the photo, I'll post it.

Anyway, there's another race on the same spot next Sunday, and I emailed the leader of the Seoul Flyers Club, asking him to enter me in the 10K (as he offered on their Facebook page), so I'll be stepping up my distance a little. Also, I'm going to be visiting family in California in a week and a half (!) and maybe I can find a race there. Anyway, the plan is to do a 10K, then a half-marathon, then the marathon I promised myself, back in 1969, that I'd do one day.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter the Joongang Seoul Marathon.