Round-eyed Observations

After several months of living in South Korea and experiencing a little bit of what this foreign culture has to offer I think it only right to share some of my findings and experiences. These notes will be accompanied by photographs that may or may not pertain to the words.

SAM_2924

Firsts: I accidentally ordered deep fried animal organs from a street vendor. I swear to God I may have eaten a sheep lung.

Things I have noticed about Korean culture: There is exercise equipment outside almost everywhere (so far observed in parks, schools, shanty towns, under bridges, and the woods).

If you like upper thigh then go to Gangnam. Korea is a serious leg culture and many people do not seem terribly interested in breasts. Frequently I see women wearing clothing that goes all the way up to their mid neck but ends midway passed the panties. Do not look for cleavage in the East Asian world. Coming from America, predominantly a boob culture, it is very noticeable.

Views of nudity are very prude in North America so naturally I am always struck by a country that’s not ashamed of a naked body. Interestingly enough the nudity is only permitted in public bathhouses and god forbid a girl show a smidgen of cleavage or a bare shoulder on the street.

SAM_3149

One of the biggest differences between South Korea and the United States, as it occurs to me, is the level of trust. Koreans seem to be more trusting of their neighbors and perhaps deservedly so. Koreans seem less erratic and untrustworthy as a whole. You can leave your place unlocked or even leave your stuff outside for a few days. Nobody will mess with it. The restaurants that leave their fish tanks outside would never catch on in most American neighborhoods. Some dumb kid would surely put bleach in the water because he believed it to be funny.

Even more, safety. This might be the safest country I’ve ever been in. Korea is not terribly handicap accessible and not as strictly guarded for general safety. Kids run around all over with little or no supervision. Two things at work here: trust that the kids will be safe and lack of fear of being sued by sue-happy parents. America loves to go to court over just about anything. Maybe it just hasn’t caught on as much here…yet. Often times I’ll see students show up with casts from nasty falls on the playground and they act like it was nothing. ‘It’s the risk you take when you have fun,’ their eyes seem to say.

Human waste management is interesting. It is not terribly uncommon to witness children pooping outdoors. In addition, bathrooms frequently will not have toilet paper and when they do you are not obliged to flush said toilet paper. Instead you should bunch it up and place it in the waste basket adjacent to you.

Fan death is a legitimate fear. Not legitimate in the sense that you can really die from it, but intelligent people legitimately believe there is grave danger in sleeping with a fan on.

SAM_3468

Don’t throw around words like “drugs” or “lesbian” unless you really know who you are talking to.

In addition to ample military personnel there is also at least one family of goats guarding the DMZ. We fed the mommy goat some crackers.

That thing that looks like a swastika that you see everywhere does not mean what you think it does. But they do express laughter via text like this: KKK.

Men have purses, dress extremely metrosexually, and occasionally even wear makeup yet there seems to be at least a mild persisting homophobia among some.

The place is largely clean and tidy yet easy access and ready availability of public trashcans eludes the peninsula.

Hiking is taken very seriously. I and others have been “corrected” for not wearing the correct footwear while going for a rugged uphill stroll.

SAM_3266

Pretty much every single person in Korea who is not Korean is looking for a Korean to bang.

Things like fatness and baldness are very rare.

Surreal experiences: As a cartoonist I enjoy drawing comics for my classes. They make fun projects and the kids really seem to enjoy them. They challenge their creativity for, you see, the speech bubbles are empty. The students must use the phrases from the previous lessons and their own cunning to make a clever and coherent story out of the bizarre series of pictures I have given them. Correcting cartoons you yourself drew is weird enough, but reading the broken English captions penned by 500 Korean children is pretty interesting. Their captions and story arcs range from the hilarious to the bizarre to the morbid and shocking.

SAM_3052 2

The Seoul Zoo may be the most depressing zoo I’ve ever been to. It ranks alongside the Utica Zoo circa. 20 years ago. Admittedly I went on a bad day. It was dark and rainy and almost empty but I doubt the gray concrete slabs behind cold iron bars that house both a small pile of hay and a defeated looking exotic animal would ever appear inviting on even the best of days. When I say it was almost empty I don’t just mean there were no patrons. I mean there were no staff people. We got to explore darkened buildings that were obviously not for public viewing because no one was there to stop us (also Korea doesn’t lock up). At one point we sat in a parked zebra car and took pictures. The whole zoo scene felt like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It was kinda cool.

Ironically, the EverLand amusement park zoo is pretty good.

The first snow was the other day. After 5 years in Los Angeles I had all but forgotten about the resplendent transformative powers of a freshly fallen snow. The cold white blanket covered the earth and made it all beautiful and clean. As I walked home in the snow I saw that the whole town had come to life. Everyone was outside either shoveling, building snowmen, sledding, making snow angels, or having snowball fights. Every corner and alley way I passed I saw life and joy. On the way to work the next day I could hear the snow crunch beneath my shoes with a sound not wholly unlike your sister stepping on your space station you made for your guys from the styrofoam packing thing your dad’s printer came in. It was glorious.

SAM_3587

At work we were periodically informed we must aid in the shoveling efforts. With more teachers than shovels many of us were reduced to utilizing flimsy dustpans and plastic toy trowels.

My trowel broke.

Things I am proud to have taught my students about in class: Dia de los muertos, the finger, Pablo Picasso as the lost Pokemon, The Headless Horseman, the phrase “no dice,” Tesla’s torrid avian romance, water closet, public exhibitionism, Hannibal Lecter, gat, “I need more cowbell,” Frank Zappa, and cockfighting.

Frank Burns Eats Worms or: the accounts surrounding my first few months in South Korea (strategically edited)

See the trip from LA to NY HERE.

The summer passed quickly. Lots of time digging up old friends from random corners of New York State and seeing what had become of them since college. Lots of great home cooked Italian meals. Lots of fun adventures with family and what seemed to me very much like getting reacquainted with my two younger sisters. As time went by I was able to see colors in my old home-town and stopped taking only black and white pictures.

My grandmother was beginning to get used to the idea that I was in fact leaving the country. She made every moment make it feel like it was the end. This made the summer have an interesting tone.

I recall what I can only refer to as “the Adirondack high.” Driving up to Plattsburg to visit a good friend we had to pass through several hours of Northeast mountain air. We cracked the windows and stuck our noses out like cocker-spaniels and inhaled deep the thick, fresh, piney mountain air. Feelings of euphoria not wholly unlike certain illicit substances rushed over us. I could not tell whether it was the pureness of the scent or the fact that we had been nearly hyperventilating for over an hour to keep smelling it. You can believe what you want, but whatever it was it was downright magical, I tell you.

The summer had taken me to Plattsburg, Syracuse, Albany, Schroon Lake, Utica, and Old Forge and now that it was coming to a close it was time to make one last locational maneuver. We left Herkimer for Long Island to spend the night with my grandfather. The next day would see me up early to go to JFK and then onto a nonstop Asiana Airline flight for over 15 hours over Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China before finally nestling down at Incheon airport. I can honestly say I felt neither excitement nor apprehension. I don’t know what I felt. Perhaps I felt nothing. Since I knew so very little about what I was actually doing, perhaps it had not yet set in emotionally.

The Airport and the Arrival

The march of the stewardesses. These women were chosen for their beauty. Or rather seemingly for their eerie uniformity of measurements.

The flight was long.

When we landed the runway snuck up on us. A typhoon had caused a terrific fog. It was sometime during our descent that it occurred to me that I had little notion as to what I needed to do or who and how I was to meet anybody. I had to pass through customs and meet a driver. That was as far as I knew. After obtaining my bags I wandered in search of my driver. Where was I to meet him? After a fairly un-suspenseful search I found a little man who held a paper with my name on it. I approached him uncertain if I was meant to bow, shake, or even tip. His English was extremely limited but he helped me to the kiosk to change my money.  The drive to my new apartment was mysterious. Fog enshrouded everything. The strange buildings of Incheon, Seoul, and Suwon loomed like the ghosts of edifices past. That some appeared to be under construction gave them a zombie-like aura as their visibility waned in the soupy atmosphere.

My first impression of South Korea chiefly concerned the looming, repetitious architecture. It struck me as a cross between the city in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the planet Vogshpere as it was portrayed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. This perception would alter over time.

The School

The first day of work saw me standing outside beneath the Korean flag as the 1,100 children and 60 something teachers sang their national anthem. I was then invited to give a small impromptu speech of introduction at the podium. Having been a public speaking teacher but a few months prior perhaps I was cocky. Over the next few days I began to meet some of my many students. It was overwhelming and strange. What’s more, one week had gone by and I had not seen a single non-Korean. It was bizarre coming from America, as I had come to associate large metropolitan areas with ethnic diversity. Korea is a homogenous society and I was the only mustachioed round-eye in a city of near one million it seemed.

I was informed, just before class started, that I could not molest the children. That rule suited me fine, but they continued to explain to me that I must not molest the children. Molesting kids is very bad, I was told. I’m not sure where it was they believed I had come from or what was customary there, but I tried my best to assure them that it was the furthest thing from my mind.

Every Korean must learn English all throughout their education much like how they also must go for compulsory military training if they are male. Here was a country that was shipping native English speakers from all over the world to make their kids learn the international language of business and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it just for international prestige; to be able to say that their students spoke the best English? To say they spoke better English than China and Japan? Maybe so.

All the while, as my stay went on, there were murmurs and whispers of the English program gradually becoming extinct. Perhaps I had gone not a moment too soon. Perhaps in five years or so English teachers would not be as in demand.

Life

My exposure to only Yongin had led me to believe that all of Korea was this low-key. Not so.

I went to Suwon. I had to brave the treacherous bus system alone in order to meet the only other round-eye I saw on the plane. He was teaching in Suwon and was meeting new friends there. I was invited. We went to an expat bar that served much western booze and much sub-par western cuisine. The westerners had come from all around to get drunk and see other westerners. One fellow had been teaching in Korea for five years. Was that to be my future? I examined the man. We were not so similar but I could not rule out the possibility that I might be gazing at my own future.

Suwon was a proper city with neon and grime, but Seoul one-upped it. Saturday saw me navigating the buses again to get to Jukjeon station to meet two Americans working in Yongin. From here we took the subway into Gangnam, but not before helping a pair of lovely Canadian twin sisters move their bulky mattresses. In stereotypical gender role fashion I and the other male carried the mattresses.

Korea consumes more alcohol per capita than any other country. A friend told me that. I haven’t done the research to back it up, but it sounds plausible and I’m the trusting sort.

Seoul is a fascinating place by day, but perhaps even moreso by night. All public transportation save for taxis stop at midnight and do not open again until 6 in the morning. This is to ensure that rowdy western drunks and fall-down Korean drunks do not dominate other the trains, buses, etc. It just makes sense.

By 4 in the morning the streets are full of drunk people either sleeping, barfing, trying to get home or a weird combination of the three. At around 4:30 troupes of hunched old ladies start to scuttle about in the alleyways, their bright colored uniform garb denoting their intent. These are the city’s cleaners. Much like plecostomuses this gnarled geriatric army waits for the grime and then goes to work. If the whole city can get wasted and trash itself then you must have some means of tidying up before dawn.

Actually, regular garbages are hard to come by in Korea. There are also stingy with napkins and do not encourage flushing toilet paper. Despite these oddities it is a remarkably clean place for the most part.

After one particular proper night of popping in and out of different venues of swift inebriation, we found ourselves in a unique position: we needed to go home, but the subway doesn’t open for another hour and a half. We were too exhausted to wait and so hailed a cab. Split four ways it wouldn’t be so bad, we thought.

We could not have foreseen the flat tire that was to occur en route which delayed us an hour and a half. Shivering, tired, perhaps slightly hung-over (our group as a whole, that is), we waited by the side of the road. The driver had never changed a tire before and we could not properly assemble his tire-changing tools. The roadside assistance fellow was there in a snap, unfortunately the cabby waited an hour and half before calling him. The sun was up before my head hit the pillow.

There was no discount on cab-fare that night.

Later

The Busan International Film Festival saw me finding my way to the other end of the peninsula. After a slight movie hiatus I was all too eager to make a meager 5 hour train ride down south. The films were altogether wonderful. We saw In Another Country (South Korea), Fly with the Crane (China), Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA), and The Pirogue (Senegal). They fit nicely around our wandering and eating in Busan.

Before coming to Yongin I knew almost nothing about Yongin. I was aware it was in the same province as Seoul (Gyeonggi-do, that is) and it was a sister city to Fullerton, California which was a fine city in walking distance of my last apartment. I was also aware of two landmarks: The Korean Folk Village and EverLand.

I went to the Korean Folk Village with two fine folks from Minnesota or Michigan or somewhere. I’m pretty sure it had an “m” in it. Maybe it was Indiana. It was Chuseok the weekend we went. Chuseok, apparently is the biggest holiday in South Korea. Needless to say, the premises were crowded. The old historic houses and costumes made me get a better sense of the country I was in. It was much needed as I frequently forget I am in another country. Moving from Buena Park to Korea is not great a culture shock as you might think. The weather was starting to get to me though. The Folk Village was proper historical pageantry and reminded me of a Renaissance Festival on valium. I mean that in a good way.

Only real quibble with the Folk Village? It is near impossible to get to from where I live. There is apparently something called ‘living too close.’ No buses will go near there from my apartment. We wound up somewhat lost and were forced to hail a cab. Cabs are much cheaper than in America, but the even cheaper buses have spoiled me and I resist taxis whenever possible.

I experienced EverLand some weeks later. It is an amusement park not unlike Disneyland in craft and attention to detail. The rides were short and the lines were long, but the weather was nice and my three world-wandering companions for the day made it quite enjoyable. I call them the wanderers because when one inquires as to their land of origin they proceed to look up and to the left and begin listing off countries. Clearly traveling was well woven into their lifestyles. As only a novice wanderer, I envied them.

After a month and a half there was really only one constant thing in my life: it was the coughing man. Every morning I heard the coughing man. He sounded like a slightly clumsy man perhaps in his thirties. His cough was harsh. It sounded like he was dying. He stumbled up and down the stairs and coughed every morning. I could hear him grasping wildly for the railing as his coughs catapulted  him into the walls. I would be in my apartment and I would hear him upstairs. There would be a sudden, loud, and frightfully aggressive cough usually followed by the dropping of some crockery or glassware. I don’t think I ever saw his face. I heard him every morning and every evening. He never sounded better and he never sounded worse.