Wednesday, July 4, 2012

If it's the Same Price, Buy the Shiny Red Skirt

우리는 어디로 가는 걸까, 대답은 알 수 없어도.
(Where could we be going, though we cannot know the answer)
태양은 다시 떠오르겠지, 내일 우린 여기 없을 테니까
(The Sun will rise again, since we'll not be here tomorrow)

Unlike most developed countries, Korea requires two years of military service (give or take a few months depending on the unit) for all able-bodied men.  Individuals with flatfeet, astigmatism, or deep pockets are usually placed in some civilian role, but few are able to entirely avoid the barracks.  For Korean residents this waste of two years is the source of much exasperation, but not the source of any social ostracism at university, as half of the student body is forced to undergo the same process.  For those fortunate enough to study stateside, however, the two years of compulsory service, coupled with the year or two most of them lost when transferring to schools in the US (the Korean school year begins in March, not August), leaves most graduates of the military program feeling some level of mental regression, like Kindergarten teachers forced to interact exclusively with their flock of bed-wetters.
Two years ago, while living in Seoul as an intern at a Korean governmental agency, I went to visit a friend of mine, who we’ll call “Woo,” who was at the time finishing up his first year of service in the Korean Marines (해병대).  There’s actually a special application process for the Korean Marines, as it is objectively one of the most grueling and soul sapping of Korea’s various military branches.  For those of you who remember the incident at Yeonpyeongdo (연평도), the marines were the ones put on duty and told to write up makeshift “Last Will and Testaments.”
There is a Korean phrase that I think accurately captures why anyone would join the Marines when they could easily join the Army, spending their two years largely devoid of anything resembling the military imagined in film and literature:  같은 값이면 다홍치마 (If it’s the same price, buy the shiny red skirt).”  For Woo, an unassuming and occasionally naïve university student, joining the Marines was a way to prove to himself and his classmates that he was a patriotic man's man.  
            It’s difficult to get much in the way of vacation when you are a marine, but they do make certain exceptions for family members that are not made for friends of the enlisted.  The plan was for Woo’s parents to drive me and another friend down to Kanghwa Island (강화도), spend the day together, and then have a "family emergency" in Seoul once it was too late to return Woo to base, so that we three friends could spend the night drinking and going to Karaoke (note:  approximately 80% of Korean social outings eventually devolve into these two activities). 
            The only catch to our brilliant scheme was that Kanghwa Island does not present much in the way of nightlife.  It is so backwater as to be the only Asian town outside of the Gobi desert to lack potable water (re:  McDonalds).  Like much of the Korean countryside, it is approximately three decades behind Seoul in terms of development, and approximately 40% behind in terms of the attractiveness of its female constituents (all the hotjumma have emigrated to Seoul, a move so common as to demand its own two-character noun in the Korean language:  “상경 (sang-kyong)”).
            After checking into a 찜질방, or sauna, for the evening (yes, Koreans can and often do sleep in saunas), we settled into a bar.  As to be expected amongst twenty-one year old males the conversation quickly turned to sex, just as starving men are known to discuss their favorite recipes.  I don’t remember much in the way of specifics, but I do recall being impressed that the other friend, who I’ll refer to as “Sung,” had managed to convince some girl at a bar that the reason he spoke English, rather than being his years of study in the states, was that he was a secret agent working for the Korean government as an undercover Korean-American.  As I’m sure that Korean women are inherently aroused by those brave souls spiriting valuable intelligence from the powerful Kimchi cartels to the Korean government, I hope to one day have an opportunity to present myself to an unsuspecting woman as an undercover American-Korean (though first on my bucket-list of pickup lines is that of the father of one of my closest secondary school friends:  “Hey, my name is [ ].  I’ve got a job, a driver’s license, and I’ve never been to jail.  What’s your number?”). 
            Having concluded the first round of drinks, we headed into the nearest Karaoke, which, like the rest of the town, was empty.  There was something else that was off about the place, but I couldn’t determine precisely what it was.  The seats were a bit different, the alcohol selection was a bit larger, and the room seemed a little less focused on the television screen, but again nothing was unequivocally odd.  The female owner walked us in and asked what we would like to drink.  Responding that we would need a minute to decide, she continued:
            “So, how many girls?” (아가씨들 몇 명?)
            “Pardon?” (?)
            “How many girls should I call in for you guys?” (아까씨들 몇 명 부를까요?)
Ah, that’s what’s different.
            Regardless of our lack or excess of desire to stay, at the time all three of us had pockets far too shallow to comfortably afford the tab we were likely to run.  Hanging our heads, we declined the Madame’s offer and made our exit. 
I should note that this type of institution is not in the business of prostitution.  The girls will not sleep with you, or at least, that isn’t part of their job description (if they like you, they might, but such behavior is non-contractual).  All they do is pour you drinks, cozy up to you and coquettishly call you “오빠,” the Korean term for “older brother” used by women to refer to slightly older men.  If a term exists for the sibling equivalent of “oedipal,” I am certain that it is buried deep in the lexicon of the Korean tongue.
Walking around the city in search of a “He-man woman haters” karaoke, the three of us quickly discovered that in fact there were few karaoke joints that did not promise girls.  We also discovered that despite this bravado there were no girls, only middle-aged women (remember, the young and pretty ones have already moved to Seoul) faux-coquettishly twirling their tar-stained fingers and coughing out raspy renditions of “오빠to clients young enough to be their own offspring.  After finally entering a “normal” karaoke, we sang some and returned to the sauna to shower up and head to bed.
The sauna offered little in the way of normal comforts.  Returning from the hot baths to find my watch missing, Woo correctly remembered the presence of a mousy thirty-something creeping by the corner of our lockers when we had been undressing.  After convincing the owner of the sauna to open what we believed was the man’s locker, we found my watch.  But though it occurred to me that I might not want to be present for the man’s discovery of his lost spoils, we had already paid the entrance fee and would have to stay in the eye of the storm for the duration.
The night passed uneventfully, and the three of us awoke with no discernible knife marks on our torsos.  We also awoke to the chattering of a group of ajumma who had apparently made the executive decision that everyone sleeping in the public space should be prepping for the day ahead by 7 a.m. (despite fervent protests from the adjacent group of ajosshi).  Having no recourse to these fearsome creatures, we got up, changed out of the sauna’s uniform into our civvies, and left for the bus stop so that Sung could catch an early departure.  In a fitting end to the trip, as we approached the bus station we saw a woman cleaning up a “barbershop;” one replete with heavily tinted windows lest passing children witness the inappropriate cutting of hair that would take place throughout the day.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Failure to Comply with Reality

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.  Orr was crazy and could be grounded.  All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them.  If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.  Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."

-Joseph Heller, Catch-22

I spent the summer before college working two markedly different jobs.  In the morning I worked as an secretary at a legal company we'll denote AAQ, determining the financial eligibility of potential clients, and in the evenings I worked as a waiter at a “Chinese-Mongolian” restaurant owned and operated by Koreans (with a Vietnamese chef and Mexican food prep crew thrown in for diversity).
            I don’t want to be too harsh on the people I dealt with at AAQ, as many of those individuals were dealt a rather shitty hand at birth.  Having established that fact, there were a few cases where the incompetence and/or lack of awareness of clients bore repeating.  One fine morning I received a call from a man who, judging by the accent, lived in what we call “Down County.”  He quickly established that his motive for calling was to obtain a divorce from his wife:

“The thing is buddy, I was separated from ‘er fer about four months, but I gon’ an’ slept with her again las’ night.  So, you know, I figure I need to get a divorce”

“Well, AAQ can’t actually help you file for divorce, but I can send you some forms and you can do it yourself.  However, I should note that you are legally required in the State of [ ] to be separated from your spouse for a full year before applying for divorce.”

I stopped short of pointing out the obvious, namely that the state lacks both the resources and will to confirm the particulars of any individual case.

“See, tha’s the thing man.  I know that if I don’t get a divorce, I’m probably gonna’ keep on goin’ to her house and sleepin’ with her.  You know?  I just figure I needa’ get my divorce”

A significant number of callers exhibited some sort of mental disorder, drug-induced or otherwise.  I received a call from one man complaining that he was not being allowed to live where he pleased.  “I tried to live in a convent, you know, but apparently they only let women in there,” he informed me.  I responded that yes, generally Catholic nuns preferred to live in a testosterone-free environment.  “I suppose so,” he replied, somewhat crestfallen.  “I just think it’s a horrible world we live in.”  I hung up, expressing my condolences that he wouldn’t be allowed his reign as chief stud of the nunnery.
The clients at the restaurant were rarely as exciting, but the eighty-five year old owner from Korea’s version of “Down County” was a specimen unique in her own right.  Her English, to my knowledge, consists solely of the vocabulary necessary to pick up the phone long enough to convince the caller that he has dialed the wrong number.
For the uninitiated, at Chinese-Mongolian restaurants the customer fills up several bowls of raw ingredients before handing them off to the chef.  The obvious difficulty this method presents is how to prevent the gluttons it attracts from bleeding us like the stuck pigs we serve them.  One lard-filled semi-sentient being, having abused the buffet, was the unknowing recipient of Grandma’s Korean-language harassment. 이렇게 많이 먹어돼지 같다야! 돼지야! (Hey, how can you eat so much?  You’re like a pig!  You’re a pig!).”  Realizing that her perplexed Caucasian customer was failing to comprehend her Sino-Altaic condemnations, Grandma resorted to her limited English repertoire:  “Piguhhhhhh!  Piguhhhhh!”  Realizing the potential gravity of the situation her grandson grabbed her, assuring the customer that Alzheimer’s was a terrible affliction resulting in all manner of inexplicable behavior.
Grandma also liked to dole out unsolicited advice and food to her employees.  돌쇠야, 계란을 먹을래? (Do you want an egg?)” she would ask, apparently unaware that normal people don’t snack on hard-boiled eggs in between taking orders and clearing tables.  Once she called me into the back room to relay an apparently urgent message:  돌쇠야 교회 다니는 한국인이랑 결혼해라! Make sure you marry a Korean girl who goes to Church! (My maternal grandmother, I should note, has expressed some trepidation about such an arrangement:  “Wouldn’t your children be midgets?”).” 
Done with her rant, and having confirmed that I had heard her properly, she returned to slicing endless slabs of meat in the kitchen.  There, she found a new recipient of ancient Korean wisdom in Carlos, whose European fauxhawk, she says, is “don’t likeuhhhh.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

"Yale is terrific for anything you wanna do, so long as it doesn't involve people with sneakers, guns, dope, lust, or sloth"
-Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities

The neighborhood in which I used to reside, Sinchon (신촌), is a human cesspool serving three major universities:  Yonsei (연세),  Ehwa (이화), and Sogang (서강).  Its merits are such that when I tell older Koreans that I lived there, I am certain to elicit a knowing grin.  Encyclopedia Brown’s Idaville may have had “…churches, a synagogue, and a delicatessen,” but surely those amenities pale in comparison to Sinchon’s offerings:  hourly-rate motels, a phone-sex operator, and a ramen house!  
            Amidst this human wasteland of soju, vomit, and motels whose sole advertisement consists of a blow-up spider man doll with a halogen light-tube emanating from his spidey-crotch, city bureaucrats felt it wise to install an elementary school.  And in a probable effort to tame the tides of these youth's inevitable degeneracy, the bureaucrats also installed a park catty-corner to the school.
            It’s a nice park, as far as Sinchon goes.  At night there’s the usual mix of homeless people, but also free concerts and hipsters (both domestic and foreign, sans tariffs) making moves on tricked out BMX bikes.  There are also lots of pigeons shitting at will.  It’s not a bad place to take a date if you’re cheap, which as a student with effectively negative income, I admittedly was.
            Also, as I was informed by one girl unfortunate enough to accompany me to said park, it is a “gay park (not to be confused with parks exhibiting heterosexual tendencies).”  This helped explain the many congregations of vaguely counter-culture G.I. Janes sitting on the deck outside the lavatories, and also gave me a sufficiently logical (albeit inaccurate) explanation of my relatively poor luck with the ladies I had previously brought there.
            This park has always seemed to me somewhat of an anomaly.  While I’ve met many Koreans who are deep enough in the closet to have reached Narnia, I only know two openly homosexual Koreans.  Partially a result of Christian culture, and partially the result of a conservative secular culture, the Land of the Morning Calm does not seem to be particularly approving of gay individuals (then again, per the recent constitutional amendment, neither does North Carolina).  From the guy at my boxing gym who always seemed to prefer wrestling, to the potential language exchange partner who repeatedly insisted on telling me about his military career as a “seaman,” there are a few Koreans who probably would have been better off in a more liberal western society.
            That said, significantly more liberal attitudes can be found in neighboring Hongdae (홍대), a district surrounding an artsy university with a similarly debauched but dissimilarly upscale feel.  There are college students, of course, but also big shots compensating for inferior penis length with Lamborghinis.  I would forgive the drivers their choice of car if they were able to drive the standard version of the vehicle, but a passing look at the gearbox will usually reveal an automatic transmission.  That is to say, they might as well be driving go-karts.
Depending on which origin story you prefer, you might say that the district’s fame began when the punk-rock group Crying Nut (크라잉넛) started making hits in the late nineties.  While they never experienced financial success on the level of their American counterparts, they did at least improve on their original position.  None of the band members come from notably wealthy backgrounds, and prior to achieving some level of tangible success, they were hard pressed for basic expenses.  After practicing at a studio in the neighborhood one evening, they realized that they lacked the funds necessary for bus fare.  Pooling their money together, they bought a bag of nuts from a convenience store and walked home, metaphorically “crying.”  Hence the name.
A Korean guitarist I know remarked once that it was a shame the band hadn’t been born in America, where objectively talented bands like “Crying Nut” might be appropriately remunerated.  I agree with him.   However, they should content themselves with the fact that at least they are not an Iranian punk band like the "The Yellow Dogs Band" of Tehran, who cite “…Joy Division as an influence” and whose music is “…not approved by Iran’s Minsitry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

On Hospitals and Taxi Cabs

"Cabs are here!  Cabs are here!  Cabs are here bro!"
-DJ Pauly D

The summer before my senior year of college I interned in Hong Kong.  This is a different country (or “Special Administrative Region,” at the least) from Korea, but not as far as my grandmother and her friends were concerned:
“Will you be able to speak Korean with the people in Hong Kong?”
            “You mean with the Koreans who live in Hong Kong?”
            “Well, whoever lives there.”
            “You mean the Chinese people?”
            “All I know is you had better steer clear of that North Korea”

But while I spent the vast majority of my time in HK, I did manage to make it to Korea twice that summer, once as part of the internship and once on vacation.
            The first trip began inauspiciously enough, but quickly took a turn for the worse.  I had been coughing frequently and generally feeling sick in the weeks leading up to my arrival in Seoul, but I just assumed that eventually this would pass.  About four days into the trip though I had a peculiar dream, in which I dreamt that I needed to solve an integral using differentiation by parts.  For those of you who need a calculus refresher: 

The reason I so desperately needed to solve this integral was that the problem’s completion, I logically reasoned, would lead to the cessation of pain in the lower part of my chest cavity.  Still in my dream state, I plunged forward with the math.
            As I began to regain consciousness, I realized that solving this problem was hardly “integral” to the sensation of being stabbed repeatedly in my right lung.  Taking a piss didn’t seem to help much either, so after a few minutes of wavering I called the front desk to ask for a doctor.  They didn’t have one, but sent up a bellman to help take me to the hospital.   I thought this a bit much but by the time he arrived I was having trouble standing up, and by the time I reached the hospital I was getting to be delirious.
            As it turns out my problem was not mathematic incompetence, but pneumonia.  While that sounds like a complication eradicated in the 19th Century, it can be quite serious if left untreated and so I stayed in the hospital for the next few days until my flight back to HK (though the doctor had suggested I stay longer, and in retrospect, that might have been a good idea).  My stay was comfortable enough.  A few friends came to visit, and the elderly cohabitants (oscillating between three and five in number) were interested to hear why a caucasian twenty-two year old a) was interning in Hong Kong, b) spoke Korean, and c) ended up in Korea just long enough to become hospitalized.  The nurse was a binary “one,” which further assisted in rendering my stay bearable.  
            My second trip to Korea was, with the exception of one event, markedly more enjoyable.  I spent most of my time traveling around the countryside with a college “hubae (후배),” or younger classmate, and the remainder catching up with friends in and around Seoul.  This hubae, however, does not live in Seoul, but rather the city of Incheon (where the egomaniac MacArthur famously succeeded with what was by all accounts a boneheaded decision).  Incheon is sufficiently close to Seoul, however, to warrant its incorporation in Seoul public transportation.  One day, deciding that I was short on time for an appointment in Seoul, I hailed a cab instead of taking a bus.  When I told the cab driver to take me to “New World Department Store, at Express Terminal (신세계백화점, 고속토미날),” he told me that I would make better time taking the subway.  When I got down to the station and looked at the map I realized that he must have made a mistake.  The train would take nearly an hour, while I had done the cab ride before in less than thirty minutes.  Going back up to the street, I hailed another cab.
            I had been certain that I was on the right side of the street, but the second taxi driver told me that he would have to turn around.  I was confused, but assumed that he must know where to go.  Despite feeling somewhat compassless I had a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with the cab driver.  We talked about life in Incheon compared to Seoul, about the “trot” music on the radio, and, per usual, why in the hell I had ended up in Korea.  After thirty minutes or so, the cabbie announced, “Here we are!  New World Department Store, Express Terminal!”
            I looked outside. 
            “Right over there!”
            “Are you sure?”
            “Yep, this is Incheon’s Express Terminal!”
Fuck.  Me.
            Apparently both Seoul and Incheon had “Express Terminals” with a “New World Department Store.”  Realizing that I was at least an hour away from where I needed to be, I exited the car, took my copy of The Economist and hurled it against the sidewalk with enough force to draw the attention of passing shoppers.  The cabbie blamed it on me, I blamed it on him, but at the end of the day it was essentially a misunderstanding to the tune of two hours and seventy dollars.
            I’ve had other memorable experiences as a passenger, from the cabbie showing me a picture of his daughter and soliciting my views on her attractiveness, to the bus driver gyrating oddly while shouting “Fuck!  I’m always tired!  Always! (“시발항상 졸려항상!”).”  The oddest ride, however, occurred during my first year in the country.  The cabbie, having ascertained that I was an American, excitedly began to tell me a story, which at the time sounded to me like “Soldier…fish…wedding….death.”  A normal story in my native American South, perhaps, but not in Seoul!
            A high school hubae, who I had been riding with, translated. 

“He says that there was an American soldier who witnessed a wedding between two Koreans.  The groom took a fish to hit the bride’s feet, symbolizing that she is ready for marriage [re:  sex], and the soldier, perceiving this as domestic abuse, killed the groom.”

“Ah,” I replied.  “I don’t think most American soldiers are like that.”

Saturday, June 9, 2012

You must cross the frontier...and drink

“To alcohol!  The cause of…and solution to…all life’s problems”
-Homer Simpson

            Korea’s affinity for alcohol is something beyond the western norm.  As in most countries, a shared drink can help cement a friendship, represent an entry into adulthood, or simply change getting laid from a stochastic process to a deterministic one.  I think Korea somewhat unique, however, in that most of its women can drink western men under the table.
            Alcohol is cheap and plentiful in the country.  A bottle of soju, essentially sweet potato vodka, is around $2USD per bottle, and even in a nice bar 500cc’s of draft domestic will be under $3USD.  Being aware of this rendered paying $6USD for a bottle of beer in a U.S. bar especially difficult.  Cheap grain alcohol doesn’t seem to be plentiful in the country; I assume that’s because college students can afford to get chocolate wasted on something that doesn’t double as a disinfectant.
            Towards the end of my first year in Seoul I was invited to a party for a girl who was leaving to go study in America.  The party, however, was not one held with her school friends.  Rather, the partygoers consisted of her parents and family friends, a large number of who fit squarely into the rank of “ajosshi (아저씨, or middle aged man),” and the rest of who fit squarely into the rank of “ajumma (아줌마, or middle aged woman).”  Within a few minutes of dinner’s commencement the beer bottles were passed around.  Deciding that beer alone was insufficient, the ajosshis called for the addition of soju.  Koreans call this concoction “Bomb alcohol,” and we westerners call it a “boilermaker.”  Regardless of name, the general consensus seems to be that it is the cause of much morning-after hangover irritability.
            Despite being sizeable and of hearty southern American stock, at eighteen I was still learning how to hold my liquor.  I knew this, and I think some of the ajosshi sensed this, but, as we were in Korea, there was quite clearly one acceptable outcome to this evening:  inebriation.  They toasted various things, from the daughter’s collegiate success to the waiter, until the only thing left to toast was the alcohol itself.  At that point they began to simply repeat “one shot!” which naturally lead to a numerical value of shots far greater than initially proposed.
            By seven in the evening, I was struggling to hold on.  The walk to the bathroom had required a great deal of concentration on my part, and the ajumma had begun to look at me with sad eyes, saying “It’s okay!  You don’t have to drink anymore.”  The ajosshi smiled in agreement, but only to please to their wives.  Later, driving to a karaoke room where the celebration and drinking would continue, one of the ajosshi turned to me and said:
            “When you come to a frontier, you must cross the frontier…or else…you are an idiot (“어떤 경계를 다가오면은, 당연히 경계를 지나가야 돼….아니면바보야”)
            “Yes,” I agreed.  It certainly would be stupid to not a cross a frontier to which one had traveled.
            “In the restaurant,” he continued, “you crossed the frontier and kept drinking!  We told you that you didn’t have to drink, but you needed to!  You crossed the frontier, so that’s good! (“아까 식당에서, 경계를 지나가고 술을 계속 마셨어우린 술을 안 마셔도 된다고 그랬는데, 해야 된 거 아닌가경계를 지나가서 좋지”)
            “Thanks…” I responded. 
            A more frequent drinking companion is a man who, due to his advanced age, I simply call “halaboji (할아버지, grandfather).”  “Halaboji,” at a spry eighty years old, is a veteran of the Korean War, as is clearly written on his I.D. card, and is convinced that everyone left of George Bush is communist.  He lives in a spacious house in the middle of one of the entertainment districts of Seoul, which surprisingly suits him just fine.  I don’t think he knows any martial arts, but in effort to add to my image of him as a sagacious old man of the far east, I like to pretend that he does.
            There are certain rules to which you must adhere when drinking with Halaboji.  Because he is so much older than I am, when he pours me a glass of liquor I’m supposed to place my left hand underneath my right wrist, while avoiding eye contact.  After he has poured my glass, I must do the same for him, still avoiding eye contact and again placing my left hand underneath my right wrist.  Finally, while drinking, I have to turn to the side so as to avoid looking at him.  This isn’t merely a cute tradition to which nobody adheres…his own relatives refuse to look him in the eye while imbibing.
            One spring I had the good fortune to accompany Halaboji and his daughter on a trip to Jeju Island, “Korea’s Hawaii.”  My friends had told me a bit about the island before my departure.  It is a “Samgakdo (삼각도),” or an island that has three things:  “wind, stones, and women.”  During the drive to the airport I told Halaboji that I had heard this.  He responded, “Are you planning to make love to one of the girls there?  Maybe ten years from now a little boy in Jeju will walk around saying, ‘have you seen my daddy, Dolsey?  Where is Dolsaey?  Haha (, 넌 여기 아가씨랑 연애 한 번 해볼래아마 십년후에 어떤 애는 제주도를 돌아다니면서 주변에 계시는 분들에게 저희 아버님 돌쇠를 혹시 봤습니까?’라고 물러볼지도 몰라하하 돌쇠는 어디야!’”)” 
            On several occasions I found myself resenting the loud drinking culture of Korea.   My second residence in the country was a boarding house on top of a bar known as the “Road House (which, for some reason always brought to mind the image of a less than reputable truck stop)” in Sinchon.  It was a relatively quiet bar compared to the surrounding ones, but occasionally a group of drunken college girls would fail to recognize that while their boyfriends did not currently require hearing aids, they were likely to need them in the near future.  More than once I went out at night in my boxers to yell at a group of kids who failed to show proper respect to the unfortunate residents of the district.
            But in sum Korean drinking culture has enriched my life, particularly in the bar I frequented as a university student, where drinking games aren’t allowed.  It’s hard for the American barkeep to ascertain, after all, if three Asians and a white guy yelling in Korean and waving chopsticks constitutes a drinking game, or simply a cultural difference.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Same Same but Different

My father has taken a keen interest in all things Korean since I first visited the country.  He has developed a taste for kimchi (in all its various manifestations), an “appreciation” for soju (I cannot in good faith tell you that he enjoys the taste, but I think he would down a few shots to please a Korean acquaintance), and seems to have an ever increasing stable of Korean clients (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him that this is the return on his investment in my education).  Despite this, my father has not yet learned to differentiate between the fifty million individuals on the peninsula (seventy, maybe, if you include Mordor).  While walking near Myong-Dong a few years back, my incredulous father turned to me and said in earnest, pointing out some middle-aged lady on the street, “Son, didn’t we just see that same lady five minutes ago?  She must be a quick walker.”
            Middle-aged Korean women, or ajumma (아줌마), are often referred to as the third sex of Korean society, a claim which irks the powerful and ubiquitous subsection of the country, but which they do little to dispel.  For starters, there are the clam digger pants.  Middle-aged Korean women would wear clam-digger pants through winter if the climate allowed.  In fact, I’m fairly sure the only activity they would not wear clam-digger pants is for actual clam-digging, for which they would wear the odd beekeeper suit contraptions that squid farmers on television use to hunt their prey in its muddy habitat.  The clam diggers are perfect for their body type:  they show a little bit of skin, so as to demonstrate that their sexual allure has not completely vanished, but also cover everything significant because, well, she didn’t get those three kids out of the turnpike without exacting a toll.
            It appears that, in addition to compelling J-Crew to increase production of clam-diggers, ajumma have banded together to create the demand necessary for their very own specialty hat, a sun-visor whose large brim suggests that it was designed with sunbathing astronauts in mind.  Sun-visors, as you may recall, were popular in the eighties as a way to keep the sun out of the eyes of prep-school girls playing tennis at “The Club” while simultaneously allowing their pony-tailed blonde hair some exposure to the breeze.  In Korea, they seem to have acquired their popularity because they prevent the sun’s harmful rays from tanning alabaster complexions.  One would think that Korean women would, like women all over the world, want the sexy Latin tan that the West so venerates (hint:  this is why students get laid on study-abroad in Spain, but no so much in Germany).  However, perhaps because Korean society was more recently an agrarian one, Korean women believe that a tan implies hard labor on a farm, which, as we all know, is pretty gross.  And so, in an effort to retain their beauty and physical allure, ajumma spend years, rather ironically, parading about in the unsightly spaceman sun-visors.
            Perhaps because of the impaired vision caused by these visors, or perhaps because of their short legs, ajumma also have a tendency to walk at a speed slightly faster than that of the infirm and elderly, and slightly slower than that of precocious toddlers.  This can be frustrating when one is in a hurry, but it is a frustration one must learn to bury deep in the soul.  Otherwise, the growing resentment one harbors for this section of society may result in physical confrontation.  The ajumma, who according to a Korean saying are endowed with not two, but four shoulders, will most certainly win this confrontation.  At slightly over five feet, the only people of their stature who are more intimidating are the members of South American tribes who put bones through their noses.
Clearly one is not born an ajumma.  There are relatively few girls walking around Korean high schools with sun-visors and hips that proclaim, “I have experienced childbirth.”  Yet neither is there a real “process” to becoming an ajumma.  I have yet to see a girl who is in a somewhat intermediate stage, with long flowing hair, a tight miniskirt, and a sensible pair of Keds.  It is as if Korean women wake up one day, look in the mirror and think, “You know, I think I need to perm my hair.”  There is a small but vocal group of middle aged women who do not conform to these standards, which I have heard called the “hotjumma.”  They keep their hair long, wear tight clothing and heels, and work out on the reg.  Visually the hotjumma is great, but as the Koreans say, that is a tree one cannot (or rather should not) climb (못 오를 나무다).
            Most middle aged Korean women, however, realize that their bodies are not up to the demands of exuding sex appeal on a daily basis, and attempt to embrace their middle age.  It’s not that they want to look old, but rather that they recognize how foolish it is to imitate Demi Moore.  Should one decide to befriend an ajumma, however, this creates an invaluable opportunity.  While the ajumma themselves recognize their age, they always appreciate someone who pretends not to notice.  There are several techniques to establishing oneself as such a brownnoser.  One could say something along the lines of, “Oh, you are (such and such an age)?  I would have never guessed you to be a day over (ten years less than such and such an age).”  If the lady runs a restaurant, instead of calling out to her, “Ajumma!” one can opt for the flirtatious title “Noonem (누님)!” meaning “respected older sister.”  My most skilled achievement to date was to obtain a discount on bed sheets in a department store: 

“Are you the third daughter in your family? (혹시라도 가족의 세번째
딸님입니까?)I asked.
            “Why, yes I am.  Why do you ask? (...근데 왜요?)she replied.
            “Well, I heard that they say the third daughter is always the prettiest. (,
있잖아요세번째 딸 제일 예쁘다고 하잖아요)
“Ohmo! Thank you!  You are so handsome I will take off three dollars! (어머
너무 잘 생겨서 삼천원 할인으로 계산할게요!)

            Though they themselves are trying to watch their figures, ajumma are always attempting to buy or cook younger individuals a hearty meal.  In this sense, Korea is an incredible place to be thin, as ajumma invariably assume that one’s slightness is due to malnutrition, which can only be remedied by their gift of Korean barbeque and Kimchi Jjigae (though I should mention that this does not apply to women, who, in Korea, are rarely considered “too thin”).  At eighteen, something about my pale complexion and narrow build seemed to strike a chord in the hearts of ajumma everywhere, from Ms. Kim who fixed me pancakes and bacon every Sunday to the landlady who thought Cornflakes would be more agreeable to my western palate than bony fish with rice.
            Yet while their kindness can be overwhelming, so can their wrath.  The western phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” might well be changed in Korea to “Hell hath no fury like an ajumma in line.”  While waiting to enter a subway turn-tile or enter a restaurant, the sight of a small woman with tattooed eyebrows and a poof of permed hair shoving others aside may dissipate the warm feelings engendered by those free meals.  I tend to give up my seat willingly for older women (and much older men), but watching a five foot tall basketball of a woman push me aside for an open seat can make me want to grab her imitation D&G handbag and hurl it onto the tracks.
            If one follows Korean dramas, the scariest type of ajumma is the mother-in-law.  For reasons unknown, the early stages of mother-in-law-hood is an especially violent stage of the ajumma’s life.  My former boss, for example, is an affectionate, kind and caring eighty-two year old grandmother who refuses to let me pay for meals when I come to visit her restaurant.  Yet I am told that in her younger, fiercer years, not one of her four daughter-in-laws escaped tearless.  This may be something common to all women, not just Koreans.  I suppose that in many ways humans are human, and there are a great deal of commonalities across cultures.  When I told a Korean ajumma of my father’s inability to tell Korean women apart from one another, the ajumma turned quickly and, in a surprised voice, said, “But we all think white ajumma look the same!”  Upon further reflection, perpahs middle-aged women everywhere have similar appearances, outlooks on life, and unavoidable spurts of fiery rage.  However, judging from the line at a McDonald’s, one would have to admit that, physically, western women come in an unfortunately much greater variety of shapes and sizes.


“We gon’ float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Ah!  Rumble, young man rumble!”
-Do I really need to attribute this quote?

            I took many walks during my first year in Korea, mostly by myself, and often at hours my mother would probably rather I had spent indoors. I needed a hobby, but I didn’t have any real interest in Taekwondo, and decided that I wasn’t quite depressed enough to start frequenting bars alone.  However, there was one thing that the city offered which I had never been able to find in the small towns in which I had always lived:  boxing.  Not some eastern variant on the sweet science, where they bow before landing a right hook flush on their opponent’s jaw, but western style boxing taught by far east Koreans.
When I started going to the Lion Boxing Gym (“Raeeyon Bokshing,” in the local parlance), there were few if any members who spoke both English and Korean.  Having only studied Korean for seven weeks at the time, my singular saving grace was that Korean “bokshing” terminology consists largely of loan words from English.  My coach, the 1980 Korean Flyweight Champion, taught me the “whook (hook),” “jabuh (jab),” “uppoh (upper),” and my personal favorite, the “won too (one two).”
Perhaps you have seen a movie in which an elderly gentleman or lady, of some Asian extraction, seems to be either showering strangers with delicious food, or scolding them for something, anything.  If ever a stereotype did, that one holds water.  The guys at the gym were, like the bathroom and workout facilities, rough in the Clint Eastwood sense of the word.  There is clearly something to be said for the military conscription they endured.  When I returned to the US and tried to find a boxing gym, for a while everywhere I went I heard the same spiel:  you shouldn’t be using the ring, or even the heavy bag, without supervision, a legal affidavit, a full medical exam, and a wholesome breakfast filled with vitamin D.  In the Lion gym, by contrast, they would occasionally throw the pencil-thin, bespectacled middle-school students (sent by executive order of their mothers to man up) into the ring for a few rounds of hilarity for the spectators, and panic attacks for the participants.  When I would throw the wrong punch or weave incorrectly during mitt work, the coach would smack me with whichever hand he thought would reach my temple fastest.  “Ayu!  You bastard, I said ‘won too!”
Many writers have made the boxing ring out to be some kind of battleground for men of Herculean strength.  It isn’t; it’s just another athletic stage, albeit one I found more instructive than many others.  Among the things learned:  defense is key.  My usual sparring partners were much more experienced than I was, and while they weren’t out to scar any green thumbs like myself, all it took was one good sting on my part to make them remind me who was superior in the ring.  In my third sparring session a wiry Muay Thai specialist named Min Hyok, no more than 150 pounds, knocked my 180 pound frame to the mat not once, but twice, within three rounds (followed of course by the customary denouement:  the post fight pat on the back and cool-down chatter designed to reinforce that, while he was clearly competent in wiping the floor with my fractured remains, he would never do so without my express permission).  I wanted to cry afterwards, but apparently the blows jarred my tear ducts out of commission.
While I was learning to cover my head, I was also picking up bits of Korean that the language school I attended couldn’t teach.  I learned, to both the chagrin and amusement of my more metropolitan friends, how to speak in dialect and how to swear.  More importantly, I learned how to understand the previously incomprehensible chatter of the Korean ajosshi (아저씨, middle-aged man), whose accent is at least as strong as that of a South Boston resident.  My Korean friends assure me that if I had wrinkles and a different skin tone I would make a good Korean grandfather (if only a mildly literate one).
Before I became proficient in the language, the members of the gym were largely a mystery.  They don’t speak English, and without Korean any discourse with them had to be limited to gestures and cursory interpretations.  Gaining competency in Korean was a bit like getting a decoder ring in the mail, and finally solving the code I had been looking at for the past several months.  I was thankful when the secret message turned out to be something other than “Drink more Ovaltine.”
            Min Hyok, who, as previously mentioned, had wiped the floor with me, also turned out to be an amiable fellow for whom the fitness-boxing ladies at the gym (by far the best part of my evenings) always seemed to be gunning.  I sat and talked with him most nights while taking off my hand wraps and boots; sometimes about the ladies, sometimes about boxing, sometimes about both.  He had spent some time, he told me, as a professional Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.  I asked him if the women were pretty because, well, at eighteen years old what else is there to know about a country?  He responded that yes, they were quite attractive, but with a significant catch.  One day while eating lunch he had asked his friend to introduce him to an attractive girl milling about the training facility.  The friend, shaking his head and making an “x” with his arms, pointed out the adam’s apple on the lady’s neck.
            Hyun-Il, or as I called him, “hyung  (elder brother),was my main sparring partner, and like a child who has recently discovered caffeine, a force to be reckoned with.  I don’t remember what he did for employment (outside of the occasional professional fight), though I do recall that his justification for wearing a gaudy white suit was that he was a “gentleman.”  A cultured one at that, he enjoyed a wide variety of exotic music.  His favorite song was an American techno piece whose lyrics included such poetic lines as “pussy pussy dicky dicky tonguey tongeuy licky licky.”  He made sure to blast it on the speakers whenever he was about to spar.
While warming up to the song one day I asked him, “Hyung, do you know what that song’s lyrics are?”
“No,” he replied.
I translated.
“Ah…that so?”  He smiled, and continued his workout.
            As my departure drew nearer, the coaches said that they wanted to take me out for a farewell lunch.  After finishing my penultimate workout with them, the three of us went to a Korean barbecue dive in one of the alleys surrounding the gym.  I know that the men weren’t poor, but neither were they particularly wealthy.  The question of who would cover the bill, however, was never much of a question.  Growing up, my coach told me, he never had a ready supply of food, much less the means to eat at restaurants.  “I had no rice.  No money!”  Like most Koreans I met, he seemed happy to currently be in a position to offer a meal.
The next day, after the final mitt workout with my coach, I gave him an American style bear hug, which, though it confused him a bit (Middle-aged Korean men are not much for physical contact), he probably chalked it up to simply another mysterious cultural difference.  I had an appointment for which I was already late and so I hurriedly showered and dressed.  My coach had left on an errand and wasn’t back by the time I left, but I figured that I would see him sometime soon.
I did, in fact, see him exactly one year later, only hours after I had arrived in Seoul.  My apartment was in the building directly across from the gym, and I decided that during the summer I would take advantage of the free time I was afforded as a student at language school.  I would spend around two hours in the gym most days, not necessarily because I was an exercise fanatic; in part I needed something to take my mind off of the copious amount of alone time I had.
In many ways boxing constitutes a way for me to compensate for my various shortcomings.  I don’t dare say that this is the correct approach (in fact I often question it), but there is something inherently, almost stupidly, masculine about the sport.  When I was a freshman in college, before I had even had my first sanctioned match, a drunk student on my floor attempted to start a fight with the more sober me.  Several of our classmates held him back as I entered my room to sleep.  The next day I seemed to have gained a newfound respect from the school community:  apparently someone had told the drunken student that I was a triple degree black belt, a Kendo master, a fencer, and the Korean boxing champion (none of which, sadly, were true).  I took a Korean girl on a date shortly thereafter and she was rather disappointed when I told her that I was not, in fact, her country’s champion.  But it didn’t seem like such a bad title, and so I jumped at the chance to enter the National Korean Collegiate Tournament, a novice-level event for university kids, that summer.
In a sport where strength seems paramount, there is a great deal of emphasis on decreasing size.  Everyone wants to drop a weight class, thinking they will have some advantage as a big fish in a smaller pond.  I’m not sure how accurate this logic is (I’ve known a number of people who found themselves so exhausted by weight loss that they could hardly throw a jab come the date of their fight), but I bought into it, rightly or wrongly.  At my lowest, I dropped below 160 lbs, at a height of six feet and a normal weight of somewhere around 175.  For a month and a half I ate less than I wanted, drank less than I wanted, and frankly, I didn’t mind.  I wanted the middleweight title, even if it was only a novice-level accolade.
I improved my Korean that summer, to be sure, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about that.  Though one never knows the ultimate outcome of seemingly insignificant events (my life since age fourteen is in large part a result of an article assigned by an otherwise forgettable ninth grade literature teacher), at the time I couldn’t say that I had made much tangible progress toward my future that summer.  I didn’t find an internship that might lead to employment, I didn’t gain any college credits, and I didn’t even have a girlfriend.  But I did have goals:  namely I needed to beat three people in sanctioned fights.
            I had trouble keeping food down at the tournament.  I had diarrhea two or three times per day all three days of the tournament, and pissed in steadily decreasing intervals until the start of each fight.  This was not helped by the food options available; my teammates, being Korean, ate tofu paste soups with rice for breakfast, which, while I consider a suitable side dish, by no means qualifies as a meal.  When I mentioned this the trainer turned to me and said, “Ya!  You are domestic product!  You can eat this too (, 국산제품이야너두 이런 먹으면 ), before kindly ordering me two fried eggs.
            Boxing seems like an individual sport, and in many ways it is.  There are no teammates to tag in when the opponent seems too strong, you can’t blame your loss on poor play on the part of anyone but yourself.  Yet while in this sense it is an individual sport, the fight in the ring is fundamentally a team effort.  There is of course the sparring with fighters at the gym, the mitt work with the trainers, the instruction from sonbae (선배), one’s seniors in the gym.  More pressing, though, is the need for a group of friends at your corner. Of course the boxer wants to win; why else would he enter the tournament?  The seconds, however, seem to live almost vicariously through the fighter, and not in the selfish manner one sees countless soccer moms and dads prod their children towards the high school varsity squad.  I remember there being people all around the ring, but I only remember hearing and seeing my seconds and friends.  Taking out someone’s mouthpiece and spraying them with water may seem inconsequential in a short three or four round amateur fight, but people aren’t solitary creatures.  The ice bag on your neck lets you know that someone else wants the same thing you do.
            I won, and then it was over.  The tournament seemed increasingly less important, the competition increasingly less competitive, and my accomplishment increasingly less impressive.  To quote Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t “want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  In the years since that tournament, having boxed in America against more legitimate talent, my estimation of my own boxing skills has only continued to decline.  But I plan on earning a living outside the ring, and think I’ve learned enough about being “tough” to move on happily.  That said, I can assure you that proficiency in the fistic arts has little to no bearing on one’s ability to hold onto a wallet full of cash and avoid dumpster diving for your iPhone at a McDonald’s on the edge of the Chicago housing projects when mugged at gunpoint.  Hypothetically, that is.
            At this point I imagine the (one) reader is probably growing tired of this tirade, so in the words of Roberto Duran, "No mas"