Monday, May 14, 2012

Wack and white and red all over

Well, I had an active weekend. Saturday marked my home Yongsan Kimchi hash's biggest annual event, the Red Dress Run, as well as the departure of Katy, our former GM (and maybe my favoritest hasher of them all.) Yesterday, I did a 10K training run in the morning, turning around at the Gwacheon soccer field's track, where much to my surprise I crashed some church event where a few thousand people were sitting in neat rows on the field. In the afternoon, I hiked on a steep, steep trail on a new hountain near the Costco. (Well, it's not literally new, it's probably a million years old, but it's new to me... funny how I've lived so close to it for three years and never walked it before.)

But mostly I want to write about the RDR and what it means to me.

I've always been pitifully self-conscious. I can still remember, after 54 years, that I was so nervous on the stage  that I struck my triangle a second too early at the beginning of my kindergarten class' song and nearly died of humiliation. On my first day as a teaching intern, a mere 27 years ago, my hand shook as if there were an earthquake when I had to give a spelling quiz to sixth graders.

"But, Steve," you say, "you went on Millionaire in front of tens of millions of people. It can't be that bad." Yeah, but first, that was so weird, with the lights and music and bizarre set--and Regis(!)--that it was totally surreal, and second, shut up, you're hypothetical.

Here in Korea, at first I was always embarrassed to be the only Western (a.k.a. white) person in my neighborhood, in the subway, naked in the health club showers, wherever. Once I got used to having the subway seat next to me always be the last one occupied, I was okay. Then, when I started running with the hashers, it took a long time to be okay with running around shouting "On on!" and "True trail!" and "RU?", sometimes carrying a plunger or a bedpan, while the locals goggled.

But the Red Dress Run is something else entirely. It's the wackiest thing we do all year... everyone who can find one, both men and women, wears a red dress. Last year, I found a sequined, spaghetti-strap dress at a Halloween costume shop. It was so long, almost to my ankles, that I ended up tucking the hem into my shorts.

This year, my Korean friend Gloria, the school counselor, explained my situation to a seamstress, who cut the dress to mid-thigh. (As the saying goes, "As you climb the ladder to success, don't let the boys look up your dress.") It's pretty short, so I wore my pretty shorts, too.

It's a real flapper dress now, which is appropriate since I'm teaching Gatsby with my seniors--but I've decided not to wear it to school.
I'm not in this picture. (I have a good closeup shot of me in my flapper dress and pearls, but I'm not putting it on the Internet with my name attached. Email me and if you follow this blog and promise not to share it, I'll forward you a copy. It's worth the cost of an email.)

Anyway, running through Itaewon, Korea's premier international neighborhood, and up Namsan Mountain, past hundreds of locals on some sort of charity walk, with 35 other wacky waegookin, mostly men, in red dresses is so... liberating. Smiles and laughter from Koreans, dozens of people whipping out their cellphone cameras, a scowl from a Muslim lady in a hijab, even a US soldier calling out a highly indecent and highly descriptive proposition ("That'll be twenty bucks!", I shouted back)... it's so freeing to not care what other people think.

I will admit I felt more comfortable when I had a couple of dozen other men in red dresses with me than when I lost the pack and ran alone, but I survived even that. It's nice to throw off the crippling, self-imposed fear of what people think.

Doesn't the First Amendment say something about petitioning for a red dress of grievances?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ay, there's the rub.

The guy running our Yongsan Kimchi apres-hash circle on Saturday decreed that, for having come to 80 YK runs, I deserved not only the traditional patch for my happi coat and ceremonial beer, but also a shoulder rub.

I've never been one to dispute authority...

A guy could get used to this... my friendly massage therapists, Jedi and Steak.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, that's the spot.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I had an exhausting weekend full of sunshine and hashing, including my 80th YK hash and my 20th Southside, all in the last 18 months. My legs are sore and my lower back feels as if it's been given a Swedish massage by an angry golem.

Totally worth it.

Every day has been just gorgeous, sunny and hot with the early-summer convection-oven heat and breeze we get here before the steam bath of the long, real summer sets in.

On Friday, the school traveled south of the city to a picnic/sports area nestled in the hountains for our annual Family Day. I tossed a football, ran around being cheerful (which, for me, is exhausting in itself), and, with Billy Stewart, won the faculty water-balloon toss. By the time I got home at 6:00,  all I wanted was a nap in a cool room.

But there was no time; I had to get ready to head out to Itaewon for the Full Moon Hash. The sadistic hares led us aaaaaaaall the way up Namsan Mountain, on the trail and up the innumberable stairs, in the dark, to the deck at the base of Seoul Tower... and, of course, back.

It was one of the clearest nights we ever get around here (clearer than in this Google Images photo), with a big, bright moon, and the view was spectacular. The deck has a 240-degree view and, on this lovely May evening, was crowded with young couples and families. Half of them wanted to take their photos with our hasher friend WPOS, who is 5-foot-9, bald, black, and very outgoing. My theory is that they thought he was Michael Jordan.

Back at the bar in Itaewon, I succeeded in getting all stinky from smoke, leaving behind my best running shirt, and barely making it home before the subway closed.

In the morning, I overslept and all too soon it was time to go 'way north to Insadong for my home hash, Yongsan Kimchi. It was another glorious morning as we met in a big, open park across from Gyeongbokgung Palace. We had the biggest pack (about 40 people, including a couple of guests from Tokyo) that we've had in many months... I've been terrifically encouraged by the turnout of new, enthusiastic members; not too many months ago, I was worried about our survival, after 24 years, as a hash kennel.

The pack stayed together and somehow missed a vital turn; after 20 minutes we found the true-trail arrow, to go back to the start, that we clearly weren't supposed to see till much later. Most of the pack went back to find the right trail, but I... I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. (What? Oh, sorry.)

I mean, I was already exhausted from Friday and was committed to Sunday's hash, so I joined a couple of other guys and cut back to the start. Since we were in no hurry, we stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the palace:

We had a long wait for the rest of the pack, serenaded repeatedly by a traditional Korean drum group accompanying that ancient Korean folk song The James Bond Theme. Eventually it was time to go home and get some work done. So I did.

Today, the Southside hashers held a hash and barbecue on the occasion of two members' birthdays. This one started less than two miles from my place, so I biked there. Gorgeous, sun-drenched day again. The trail was varied and spectacular, up and down several hountains and along my beloved Yangjae Cheon. It was wonderful, though if it had gone another five minutes, they'd have had to drag me back, my head going bump, bump, bump, like Winnie-the-Pooh up the stairs.

The start and finish were at a shelter in a small park at the base of one of the hountains and we were all trying to have a nice time; there was potato salad and macaroni salad and burgers and dogs and Boca Burgers, because I have great friends, and beer and hard cider and a box of wine. And then one of the locals called the cops.

Apparently it's against the law to cook out in a public park, or by a mountain, or something (although there was no sign in any language to that effect). I certainly understand that they don't want people starting fires; I have no problem with that, though the grill was completely enclosed and on concrete, not near any greenery, and with 25 adults to watch over it. After a certain tense negotiation, our guy with the grill moved it way out to the sidewalk. Case closed, right?

Not so. The local guy who'd called the cops on us in the first place sat and stared at us like a hawk, the cops tried to take the name and number of the Korean hasher who was helping everyone out by translating, and eventually some park monitor dude ordered us to leave--even though nobody was drunk and there's absolutely no law against congregating, singing, or public drinking (a Korean passed out on the sidewalk is not a rare sight and heavy drinking is a big part of the business world here.)

Once we'd complied by moving the grill, we were doing absolutely nothing wrong or illegal. But they kicked us out anyway; we'd been busted on a charge of FWF: Fun While Foreign.

White Westerners have it easy here, unlike southeast Asian workers or sometimes, I hear, darker Americans. But there's a huge double standard: every expat knows that, in any dispute between a Korean and a waegook, the Korean is always right. It's against decorum for a man to run without a shirt, but only Westerners get told by the cops to put their shirts on. Koreans never get shushed on the subway, but waegookin do. And so on. The word is that if officers try to hassle you, all you have to do is try to take their picture or get their names and they walk away...

It all felt very Officer Obie at Alice's Restaurant.

Anyway, the pack started off to haul the table and the bowls and the now-cold grill and the coolers and trek off down the sidewalk for some blocks, looking for a place to finish the after-hash circle and picnic, and I biked home.

Because nobody is going to hassle you for FWF when you spend your afternoon grading ninth-grade Alas, Babylon tests.

Not even in Korea.

Good morning, America. How are ya?

I've been thinking a lot about home lately... home, as in Ithaca, and home, as in the United States.

I spent my first 42 years in Ithaca, and never thought I'd leave... it's a magical place, for all its ridiculous hippieness. It's the birthplace of Puff the Magic Dragon and, we claim, the ice cream sundae, and it's a beautiful, mIthical enclave of gentle, intelligent people, waterfalls right in town, Cayuga Lake (with its waves of blue) and my noble alma mater (glorious to view). When I close my eyes at night, sometimes I see lush, green hills rising above the long, narrow lake. One thing I love about Korea is the hills; Florida was just too flat, too not-Ithacan.

Ithaca is in my heart, whether or not I ever go back.

But mostly I've been thinking of the States. I prepare Korean kids to go to college in the USA, and as a representative of my country, I feel both proud and ashamed every day.

We were the first democracy in the modern world. We taught the globe about Liberty and Justice For All and Government of the People, By the People, For the People. We saved Europe. We've got the best popular music and the best movies, we gave the world baseball, and our ideals illuminate the Earth.

I love my country.

But we're also the land of the Trail of Tears and slavery and Jim Crow and drone strikes and empire and guns, guns, guns. We won't be capital-A America until our realities match our ideals. And it feels, from my vantage point over here, as if we never get any closer to that point; I hope I'm wrong.

I may be an expat for a long, long time. There are jobs here, and I get a certain je-ne-sais-quoi (but I don't know what) from being The Older American in Korea. But sometimes I miss Home.

Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son.