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.

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