Originally published for 10 Magazine February 2016 issue.
My weird co-teacher, Jay, invited me to what he described as a “technology conference” in Seoul. Having zero idea what that actually meant and it only being my first week in Korea, I acquiesced.
Jay picked me up at 7am sharp. There was an old woman riding shotgun. He would not introduce us, insisting she didn’t like foreigners, which was fine by me. She didn’t exactly strike me as a barrel full of monkeys.
The soundtrack of our trek was peppered with lurid descriptions of club-bound sexy twenty-somethings disrobing each other with their teeth. I doubt the old woman understood the lyrics, but she seemed to enjoy the beats.
The conference center was huge. A weird, beige device on a pedestal was being ogled by people in suits. I was woefully under-dressed. Before I got a chance to see the doohickey, we were escorted into a mammoth auditorium complete with jumbotrons and pyrotechnics. It must have seated thousands. It all felt vaguely cultish. Throw on a couple cloaks and mutter some Gregorian chants and you wouldn’t be surprised to glance to your left and spy a virgin girl being sacrificed to an ocelot-faced god with plesiosaur flippers on a throne made of spinal columns.
Jay tried to explain to me what was going on. Apparently we were about to hear from some American spokespeople. They would announce their future plans, present current financial holdings, award top sellers, and initiate new members. Jay told me that if I joined “his company” and worked for him I could make a profit if I hired sellers beneath me.
“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” I said flatly.
“What?” Jay was visibly disturbed. “No, no, no. See, we all work together to make a profit. You broaden your sales network so you move higher up and make more money.”
“That’s what a pyramid scheme is, Jay.”
“But isn’t that a negative term?” I realized I was meant to be his “in” into the American market and Jay was distraught at the prospect of losing me.
“Look, Jay, I’m not a salesman and it’s my first week at a new job in a new country.”
Jay went on about making money for a secure future and took me down to the front where I shook hands with a man who claimed to have been an ambassador to Israel before he started selling salesmen. “Right, pal,” I think I said, perhaps too audibly. All of the American speakers were like caricatures of sleazy businessmen from bad 80s movies. Yet the throng of eager followers filling the hall was completely taken in. The old lady from the car? She ate it all up. Miss Personality herself. I tried to imagine her sour puss calling her grandkids trying to peddle whatever techo-hokum this snake oil factory was barfing up.
“You know, Donald Trump used to own part of this company,” Jay said, still trying to entice me.
“I don’t really like Donald Trump.” I said.
“But…he is very rich. And he has a TV show. He is very famous. I don’t understand you, Jonny.” He called me Jonny. Jay hung his head, the dollar bill signs in his eyes fading, trying to decide if he was more confused or frustrated. He determined it was the latter.
The conference went on for—I shit you not—over eight hours. After the thirty-second sales award was bestowed to a dumpy middle-aged woman brought out on a palanquin covered in balloons paraded through a gauntlet of indoor fireworks, I left the hall and wandered the facility by myself. Jay was defeated. I found the pedestal that had been admired earlier. All this brouhaha over what looked like the world’s clunkiest answering machine.
“It’s a video caller,” a smartly dressed woman said.
“This is what they’re talking about in there?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “If you have this device you can see your friends when they call you.”
“So it’s like Skype?” Or Kakao or Facetime or any other of the hundreds of video chat apps already in use.
She began fidgeting. “In the future everyone will have one. This screen let’s you see your friends or family.”
The screen looked like a pixelated 1990 computer monitor compressed to about 3-inches. I eyed the hefty price-tag attached to the antiquated gimmick box.
“You do know this is 2012, right?”
Originally published for 10 Magazine August 2015 issue.
“Guwapo,” she texted.
“Maganda,” I replied.
I’m a socially needy person. I know this. When I think about my years abroad, the happiest moments are the ones full of friends and laughter. Living far from all things familiar, however, can be peppered with loneliness too.
It was Christmas morning. I was in bed. Most of my friends had skipped town for the holiday. There would be no potluck parties that year. I half-expected to get some work done. It had been a quiet Christmas Eve the night before. I had walked Gangnam drinking a beer after some piping hot dakgalbi. The pavement was wet and maybe there were flurries. I took the elevator up to my apartment. I called my parents and we talked for a bit. Then I watched a certain yuletide flick containing Muppets on my laptop before drifting off to the land of the sugar plums.
Daylight came in the window. I laid in bed, unsure of what to do with myself. It would be a lonely holiday, I thought. Several intense minutes of loneliness spurred me to do what all men do in these situations. I texted a woman.
A year or so prior, a good friend and I had drunkenly haunted the streets of Daegu after a comedy show. We eventually found ourselves spending the entire night and following morning with a dwindling group of Filipino ladies. It was a fun night of dancing, late night Korean food, and noraebanging. All the hallmarks.
I’ve given up pretending to know what normal, functional human relationships look like, but I never pretended the girl from that night and I were anything more than a one-time nocturnal excursion with the occasional squirrelly Kakao message exchanged afterwards. Every so often after that night, either she or I would initiate a cyber conversation that would ultimately go nowhere. And that was fine.
Now, alone on Christmas day, I found myself thinking of her and wondering what she might be doing. Perhaps not in any romantic sense. Perhaps a twinge. I sent a Christmas tree emoji accompanied with a brief message conveying tidings of comfort and joy.
It was not a markedly different conversation from any of our previous chats. She had already known I was an ESL teacher and I had already known she worked in a factory. She didn’t really like Korea and she missed her daughter and mother in the Philippines. She was a cool person. I quite liked her and I felt bad and guilty and all sorts of emotions when she told me about her troubles.
We talked about wishing we could be in our own countries and see our families. We talked about the cold weather in Seoul and Daegu. We talked about going dancing again one day and she would call me the Filipino word for handsome (guwapo) and I would call her the Filipino word for beautiful (maganda). And emoji after fruity emoji volleyed.
I still don’t really know if one of us was leading the other on. We often talked but we never saw each other again. I think we both knew we were just two silly people in a strange place that wanted someone to listen to us and say pretty things.
Whatever our motives, for a little while on a cold Korean Christmas morning, cities apart, we were humans sharing the warmth of a weird friendship…which, in my experience, are the only sort of friendships you ever really remember.
Originally published for 10 Magazine December, 2015.
Dan and I visit a Dahn yoga center in Cheonan, South Korea. Very lazy footage, but maybe interesting for folks who like exploring religious centers. Some interesting surprises along the way.
follow Dan on twitter. https://twitter.com/DanWiberg
My stuff starts at around 15 minutes in. Click the link and enjoy the comedy and following interview.
They sat upright, uncharacteristically tense, mouths agape. Twenty-two individual eyeballs scrutinized me with incredulity-betraying widened sclerae. Well, twenty-one individual eyeballs anyway. Lucas had an eye thing. It was my afternoon adult debate class and my second week on the new job and our topic was Dokdo.
The atmospheric discomfort in the tiny room was palpable. In addition to the content itself, the wording of the motion had also added to the discomfort. “Dokdo belongs to Japan,” read the Powerpoint slide. My god, that sounded final. Involuntarily I think I muttered, “sorry.” I split the class in twain, giving one half the task of preparing the negative case and the other half the unenviable task of supporting the motion for the affirmative case. They looked as horrified and disgusted as I did that one time I met a girl for a blind date and she had all black contact lenses.
Dokdo, a comically small pair of islands in the East Sea, is notorious chiefly for the territorial dispute surrounding it. This dispute is not just about the islands, but more concerning the adjacent waters. I learned very early on when I first arrived in Korea that one must never say “Sea of Japan” or do or say anything that might insinuate that Dokdo is not wholly and indisputably Korean territory. I learned a lot of things about Dokdo during that debate. Mainly, every single Korean website says it is unquestionably Korean and every single Japanese website says it is unquestionably Japanese.
I also learned that while Korea calls it Dokdo, the Japanese have dubbed it Takeshima and the English speaking world has rather dismissively labeled it the Liancourt Rocks.
It wasn’t long before our class debate devolved into fiery defenses of Korea’s ownership, even citing savage Japanese war crimes during military occupation over a century ago as points, with the affirmatives donning mock-Japanese accents and mannerisms to satirically declare Japanese ownership via venomous false arguments rather obviously intended to deface Japan’s character rather than present a legitimate case. A better teacher might not have laughed so hard.
Sensing my ideological ambivalence toward what was truly a very personal issue for them, they joined forces and turned to me to ask, “Teacher, what do you think?”
I wish I could have said that I knew Dokdo was really Korean and that we were just playing devil’s advocate in class to get everyone thinking abstractly, but I couldn’t. “The truth is I have no idea,” I told them. “I’m a stranger here and I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
A cop-out? Perhaps, but I seized the opportunity to commandeer the class and tell them that countries aren’t real and that all culture and national borders are imaginary and we all simply maintain these collective illusions out of a psychotic fear of being confronted with the fact that we truly are not that different from one another because if we realized that then maybe we would never have any wars. After I got off my hippie soapbox, still high from my anti-jingoism rant, I prepared for the onslaught of scorn and confusion. Instead I heard Clara say, “I like that.” This was accompanied by more nodding and murmurs of approval throughout the class.
Sometimes it’s easy for outsiders like myself to assume too much about Koreans and the stereotypical nationalism. I wrongfully presupposed my class would latch onto this Dokdo thing like a kodiak bear on a forgotten ham resting atop a hastily vacated picnic area. The tone of the debate shifted drastically. We learned a lot about each other that day.
“Teacher, we all agree with you,” said Maria. A unanimity of affirming guttural vocalizations followed. “But Dokdo is still ours.”
Originally published for 10 Magazine November 2014 issue.
It is easy to see why nature might resist the evolutionary urge to festoon with fuzz the philtrums of a people who consume so much soup. I have found that Koreans tend to have a certain stigma concerning facial hair. I used to hear the words of Elwood P. Dowd (in affable, marbly-mouthed Jimmy Stewart tones) echoing in head, “That’s envy, my dear,” but it may be a bit more complex.
As a mustachioed American I was well aware of some of the cultural distinctions before I arrived on Asia’s kimchi-laden shores. Less fat people. Less bald people. Not much facial hair. Got it. But I hadn’t quite anticipated exactly how my own lip caterpillar would be received. I have had a mustache [off and on, but mostly on] for the past six years or so. It had become interwoven into my very personality. They grow on you, you know.
To present my mustache in a more flamboyant fashion, I usually waxed it up like an old-timey fisticuffs champion (or Rollie Fingers, if that helps). This bold Captain Hook-esque look was immediately discouraged and eventually curtailed entirely by my Korean employers. I did still maintain a fairly impressive cookie-duster, loss of the dandy waxen twists notwithstanding. Think Frank Zappa sans soul-patch.
My over 500 students called me Super Mario Teacher, which was superbly righteous. The kids loved it. I did, however, have one smart aleck kid say once, “Teacher! Teacher! You look [like] Hitler!” I get that all foreigners can look the same, but come on. If we were going for the tyrannical despot comparison I think Joseph Stalin might have been more apropos. And I told the boy so. And he made a quizzical face. I asked him, “Do you know who Joseph Stalin is?” and he said “no” to which I replied, “He’s the wise guy who invented North Korea.” Scared the jjigae out of him.
More and more often I find myself going naked these days. Mustache-wise, I mean. It is daily a tough decision that forces me to ask myself if I am denying being true to myself in paltry exchange for greater cultural approval. Strange how the wind blows across my exposed upper lip. Curious how the consumption of soup has reclaimed its former joys. Maddening how my coworkers compliment the perceived improvement. My students, crestfallen though they might be at the departure of Super Mario Teacher, must face facts: I like being able to get the occasional date with a Korean lady.
As featured in 10 Magazine May 2014.
Last time the comedians all wrote erotic fan-fiction (topics were drawn at random) with hilarious results. This time we have non-existent movie sequels. Check it out if you’re in the Itaewon area. Happy Easter, folks.
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