Thursday, January 31, 2013

Closing time? Not yet.

My school is apparently going ahead with the decision of mandating a retirement age. As I mentioned in my last post, in Korean public schools the age is 62; Saint Paul will make it 63 (in Western years, not Korean), and allow teachers to complete the school year they begin at age 63. For me, that means I could be here another four years. And that would mean I'm halfway through my stay right about now.

In practical terms, that seems olay; four years is a long time, and if I complete that, I will have been in Korea for nine. (When I came over, I had a nebulous idea that I might stay here ten.)

Then again, it's possible I could catch on elsewhere, if only at a hagwon (evening academy) like the one I started at in Daegu.

But emotionally, it's another matter. It makes me think about endings, as if there's an inaudible countdown going on to the day I'm out the door, and it saddens me.

I'm not in love with Korea; it's sometimes fascinating, sometimes maddening, and mostly just where I am. I actually live a pretty damn American life; not being able to eat most Korean food because of its animal ingredients, and not being able to read the contents of most packaged food, makes sure of that. And I'll never master the language or get very far into Korean movies and TV. But I like my life here and I am in love with my hash group. There are hash kennels all over the world, but many of my friends who've left Korea say there's nothing quite like the hashing here.
Whenever I do leave Korea, I know what I want: a place with low living costs, a hash, decent weather, and no need to own a car. But I'm nowhere near ready yet.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The SJC post without a joke

I'm thinking a lot about age today. It is (or would have been) my father's hundredth birthday. For all the friction between us--caused entirely by me, which is something for me to live with--I see myself as more and more like him all the time.

Also, I'm trying to shake off the flu, which has me shuffling about the apartment like a nonagenarian. I was feeling half-decent on Saturday, so I did the walking trail--not the running--at the hash, but it turned out to be five-plus miles all the way up and down Namsan, Seoul's most prominent mountain, and by the end I was in a lot more pain than in any of my marathons. Till today, I hadn't taken a shower or shaved in about four days and when I got up in the morning, I looked like a past-sell-date potato. My hair looked as if I'd combed it with a slice of buttered toast.

And there's the possibility that my school will institute the Korean public schools' mandatory retirement age of 62, which would give me two more years, or three, if the rule allows someone to serve a school year started at age 61. Oh. I'd barely thought about this until this moment: if they go by Korean count of age, by which you're one when you're born and age a year every January 1, I'm 61 now. I have no idea what else I could do if I got put out to pasture. My friend Bob, who is three years older, is in the same boat.

I just read a new book entitled Korea: the Impossible Country, which says that having a manager (such as a school owner or principal) who is younger than a subordinate (such as me) makes Koreans very uncomfortable, as it goes against the Confucian-based cultural norm that age equals rank. I don't know if that's involved, but from a business standpoint, why would you get rid of a valued employee because of a number? And, frankly, I've gotten excellent job reviews and was chosen Teacher of the Year by the students. That's just a popularity contest, but... hey, they like me.

The cable's not working, so I've had three and a half days of reeling from the computer chair to the bed to read from a laptop or a Nook or occasionally a retro device I vaguely remember called a book. Bored, bored, bored. And woozy.

But, in the year's weakest segue, I was also reminded today of age in the sense of history. I found the president's inaugural speech very moving, especially when he said:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
I think it was groundbreaking for the president, at such an event, to remind us all that equal rights are for everyone. I'm neither a woman, nor black, nor gay, but human rights are human rights, and I found that paragraph of the president's--especially "Stonewall"--very inspiring. I think people will watch clips of it in 50 years' time. 

One day at a school in Florida, when I said I thought that gay people deserved to have full equal rights, a student asked, "Did you use to be gay, Mr. Cornman?" I said, "No; Martin Luther King is my hero, but I didn't use to be black."

Remember the first three words in the whole Constitution: "We, the people". All of us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Too cool for Yule

Our two-and-a-half-week school break ends in two more days. I've faced my usual challenge, filling the time and trying to be useful while everyone I work with is off in Thailand or California or some equally mythic land.

It's been cold. How cold? Really cold. Colder than you're thinking. The penguins have been wearing booties.

Being so far from home, without family, is hardest at the holidays. My hashing friends and I did a pretty good job, though, in the Comfort and Joy department. There may have been adult beverages involved in some instances.

On Christmas Eve, DW (note: the hashers' names in this entry will be abbreviated to protect the delicate sensibilities of my readers) invited bunches of us to her apartment in HBC (Haebongchan, the foreigners' neighborhood right by Itaewon, Mt. Namsan, and the Seoul Tower) for a pajama party. She prepared stockings for her guests and she and others made wonderful, warming food. She's the kind of person who makes everyone feel welcome and cared for. 

 Couch potatoes? No, hashed potatoes.
Several of my friends stayed over, but I was only there for a couple of hours, because I'd promised my good friend Kat (Jedi, in hash nomenclature) that I'd attend her burlesque show at a bar in Itaewon. Kat and two of her friends put on a sweet, silly, somewhat sexy show. Kat did a Jessica Rabbit number; I hadn't known that she can really sing.

I'm used to a cat on my lap. A Kat? Not so much.

The part where she sat on my lap and sang to me (well, she sat on a lot of people's laps, but...) was fun and touching (not like that) and maybe a little unsettling, simply because she's one of my favorite people--vivacious and caring and just really alive in a way I've always been too inhibited to be--and she's a real friend; we've shared a lot over dinners and such. And she's less than half my age. And her boyfriend was sitting three feet from me. That's not to say I didn't like it, mind, in a not-at-all-dirty-old-man way...

I rushed home just before the subway closed for the night, slept a little, and headed out for Foo Foo's apartment by noon for the Pirate Santa Hash. I have to say, I get one good idea a year and this was it, with a week to spare. Simply because being alone on Christmas is so dreary, I set up a hashing/eating/drinking/sharing get-together. Everyone brought food and a gift, I had patches made...

 More like Pilates Santa, amiright?

...and prelaid a trail, we had a wonderful feast, and everyone slip-slid-away on the trail, opened a present, which could be stolen (well, a trade could be mandated) by the next person in line, and feasted. And laughed a lot. was there from noon to 10 p.m. with two dozen jovial hashers, none of whom could be bothered to change the DVD (so we saw How the Grinch Stole Christmas four times), and despite the frigid winds and icy sidewalks outside, it was warm and wonderful. What it was, was Christmas.

I went back to DW's to cap off the holidays. For New Year's Eve, she invited a few people over for Game Night. I took a few games and she was going to teach me to play Settlers of Catan. Things did not go according to plan; we ended up with another full house and somehow ended up playing Cards Against Humanity, which is Apples to Apples, but with offensive cards. I'd just played it the day before after the hash, so it got old quickly, as did my being hit on (It happened, I tell you) by a very drunk Irish girl who one of the guys invited in out of the cold. But it was nice to be with people as my 60th calendar year ended.

On New Year's morning, I magically turned 61 by the Korean method of counting, but I'm not Korean, so I'm still 59, which is plenty young enough to go back to DW's one more time for her marvelous mimosa-French toast-quiche brunch. This time, the turnout was more manageable, the food and mimosas were marvelous, and the holidays--and my appetite--got topped off just right.

On the non-holiday days, I've tried to keep busy, prepping for school, doing some writing and a lot of reading, cleaning house, reaching the end of the Internet. I've tried to get out twice a day, just because 24 hours with nobody for a cat to talk to and nothing but a cat to look at is so wearing. I usually only hash with my Yongsan Kimchi group on Saturday mornings, but with my extra free time I've been going to the Southside hash on Sundays as well.

I laid a really nice Southside trail, if I do say so myself, which I have to, because you won't, in my neighborhood...

which the pack...
...seemed to enjoy.

What with the holidays and my extra free time and desperately wanting to get out into the world to obviate Cabin Fever, I've hashed 17 times in the last seven weeks, through some of the bitterest weather I've known since the mid-90s, when I left Ithaca. I've slipped and fallen three times, once while running, once while walking and laying a trail, once while walking to the bus. (Conclusion: slipping is better than tripping; I'd rather fall on my hip than my eyebrow. Been there, dinged that, got the stitches.) But I didn't slip on the three-story, two-inches-of-ice stairs; why doesn't the whole world have a railing?

In hashing, you face some interesting challenges...
 ...and meet some interesting people, such as Foo Foo,
not at this moment doing a naked snow angel, on the right...
 ...and C3, newly arrived from Texas, whose rendition of such traditional Scots ditties
 as the Marine Corps Hymn and the Star Wars theme
 brought dozens of Koreans out to gawk and take video.

I also downloaded an Android app, Zombies, Run! It's an immersive audio program/game that uses the phone's GPS to measure how fast you're running and intersperses a post-apocalyptic audio story with your musical playlist. A couple of times in every run, your radio operator tells you that the zombies are approaching, and you have to sprint to keep away from them. The menacing, growling approach of the undead in your earbuds is a wonderful incentive to do speed work. I had to force myself to not go out and run with the zombies today; I'm old enough and wise enough (stop laughing!) to know that running for the fifth day in a row was probably a bit much for me.

When I haven't been running, I've made it a point to get out to the school, to E-Mart and Costco, to Itaewon, to the mall, to the movies--Life of Pi in 3-D is astonishing, by the way--just to spend a little time around people and to be out where it's blue overhead and white underfoot.

And now it's almost back-to-school time. In 36 hours, I shift back from wanting-to-be-with-people mode to wanting-to-be-alone.

As P!nk sings, "Leave me alone, I'm lonely."

I'm versatile that way.

Aaand here's another picture of me. You're welcome.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Corndog'n Gangnam Style

Hey, kids! What goes 82, 130, 76, 50, 29? 

No, it's not my IQ as measured once per decade of my life. Well, maybe. Another guess?

That's right! It's the count of my blog entries from year to year! (The 82 is from the just final four months of 2008, so that prorates out to 246 for the year.) 

 I only created 29 posts in 2012, and if it weren't for running and hashing, there would be a whole lot fewer. The entries have been thinner and thinner on the ground as I've found my environment (outer, and frankly, inner) less fascinating as the years go by. What was fresh and exciting in '08 and '09 is now just a given. But 2012 shouldn't escape without a few more mentions of things that happened.

Probably the most Korean thing that I took part in last year was the wedding of Mr. Blister. (Actually, his name is Dewey, but only a few hashers knew that before the invitations went out.) Blister was one of the great hashers in Korea, famous for running in too-small, olive-green shorts in any weather. He represented the very best in the military half of the hash. (Teachers make up the other half.) His patch was the one I received on my very first hash, 25 months and roughly 140 runs ago.

In midsummer, for Blister's final hash in Korea before being sent to Afghanistan, and then to the States, we had a joint event between Yongsan Kimchi (my group) and the Seoul (men's) Hash. We ran in the morning, hit the sauna at noontime, and took part in Blister and Sujin's wedding in the afternoon. Sujin is a very sweet young Korean woman who often joined Blister at YK. (Mystifyingly, they decided to tie the knot under the names Dewey and Sujin, rather than Mr. Blister and Dead Porno Society. Go figure.)

I hurried to be first from the sauna to the minor palace where the wedding was held, as the early birds got to actually help out. Eight of us carried the happy couple (the groom on a throne, the bride in a box) to their traditional ceremony in the palace courtyard:

Steve, the Final Front Tire.

Putting on the servants' hanbok (drawstring pants with ties, gaiters, undershirt, tunic, weight-bearing sash, headscarf, hat that would fit Woody from Toy Story) proved a challenge; a Korean man helped us with gestures to get us to not put things on backwards. It's been years--over 15--since anybody has had to help me get dressed.

The ceremony itself was lovely, entirely in Korean of course, and barely comprehensible; I didn't even know, until Sujin told me later, that it was a secular, not Buddhist, event. (I can't believe it's not Buddha.) Blister had a pair of ladies who maneuvered him like a puppet: bow, kneel, sip the wine... Sujin fairly glowed in her ornate Asia-doll hanbok and amazed me by keeping her arms folded and held in front of her, with nary a quiver, for the best part of an hour.

Looking very much like my own second wedding.

...and, all too soon, Blister was off to Afghanistan and Sujin off to wait among strangers in Seattle. But they're together in Seattle now. I hope they will be very happy for a very long time.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing that happened in 2012 was that the video for Gangnam Style became the most-watched and most-"liked" in the history of YouTube. The reasons I say this are manifold: it's in Korean (except for "Hey, sexy lady", which I believe is exactly the same in every language); Psy, unlike all the other K-pop stars, is not 22 years old and 5'2", of which four feet is legs and the rest hair (the women)...

...or wearing twelve pounds of mascara (the women and the men); and I freakin' live in Gangnam, in the larger sense of the term. (It means "south of the river" and refers in general to the newer, nicer parts of Seoul); even in the strict sense, Gangnam is within a 40-minute walk and is where I go to catch a movie or dine out. Imagine if Oak Creek Mall or Main Street or whatever shopping area you frequent suddenly became the subject of the world's most famous song.

To a foreigner, Gangnam is nothing special; every big city in the world has a fairly nice shopping street, with side streets lined with pushcart vendors, bars, and intimate restaurants. It's hilarious that the government is hawking Gangnam vacations to Asian tourists; it's no nicer than they'd find in their own countries.

To a Korean, though, Gangnam is Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, the Loop, and the Yellow Brick Road, all in one. It's where everyone wants to live, where high-school graduates are nine times as likely to be accepted into the SKY colleges (Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities, the Korean Ivy League), where the media and corporations are headquartered, where you can go over your head in debt stylishly.

It's also one of the world's centers for plastic surgery; every floor on the way up to one movie complex has English hagwons (evening schools) and plastic surgery clinics. Everyone needs rounder eyes or more prominent cheekbones or bigger chests. As a sidebar, one of my female students, a junior, missed a review class for finals because she had a plastic surgery consultation... should you be carving up your face when it isn't even in its final shape yet?

The first time I saw the video, it was soundless, on a monitor in my nearest subway stop, and I said to myself, in my most erudite tone, "What the hell is this?" I rarely see goofy guys doing pelvic thrusts when the elevator doors open. (And I'm a hasher, too!) The humor in the song and the video is so very Korean. "Oppan Gangnam Style" means "Boyfriend's got Gangnam Style", oppa meaning "big brother", and what Korean girls call their boyfriends. That's a little weird, but Ronald Reagan called his wife "Mommy", so maybe we shouldn't judge.

And it was baffling to see places I go all the time, such as the Han River, the Seoul subway, and the toilet, in such a strange video.

Speaking of toilets, it speaks to the Korean frankness that this is the second hit video--the first being Wonder Girls' Nobody in 2008--with a guy sitting on the john. No euphemisms for the locals, no rest rooms, powder rooms, bathrooms, comfort stations, just 화장실 --hwajangshils--toilets. I've become inured to having cleaning ladies scrubbing while I'm attending to the necessaries five feet away.

Pee that as it may, I bet Gangnam Style is last year's Macarena, nothing more, but still. In the meantime, Psy is making more millions here, advertising cell phones and ramen and refrigerators and soju (liquor). Koreans, ever supremely conscious of their place in the world, are extremely proud of Psy, as they are of Ban-ki Moon and Yu-na Kim. You can buy Psy t-shirts and socks and... well.

I suppose it's a sad commentary that half of what I have to say about 2012 is explication of a goofy video that the world is sick of by now. My life goes on, with a secure job (unless the board decides to adopt the public schools' mandatory retirement age of 62, which is under discussion, in which case... what next?) I fight loneliness and boredom sometimes. I eat the same few things over and over; it's not easy being a veghead here. I have casual friends (pretty much all hashers) and one or two I can really share things with. I drink too much coffee and surf too much 'net. I share my life with a cat the size of Richard Parker in Life of Pi, which incidentally I'm going to see this afternoon... in Gangnam, where else?


And so it goes. Happy 2013.