2008

It is 2008 and Jiyoung and I have just had an adult conversion.  We are being mature.  We are ending it.  This will be best for both of us.  It is the big goodbye and I am feeling slightly regretful.  I have just kissed off all hope of a future together.  I am walking towards the MiniStop convenience store.  A can of Coke, a bag of beef jerky and some candy.  Dinner in 2008!  Then back to my tiny studio in Hongdae.  I’m crossing the street while vaguely wondering what the future holds.  I have been apart from Jiyoung, womanless, for approximately 3 minutes.  I hate these long droughts.  Coming up the street in the opposite direction is a woman so astonishingly beautiful that I actually put the still-wrapped Snickers bar into my mouth and break into a jog.  I dodge a taxi and walk right up to her.  To this, she shows no sign of surprise.  Apparently this happens all the time.    Oh, to be reincarnated as a woman.  And men think they have power!

She calls herself Jenn and she is 23.  She is tall and thin with dark brown hair and glasses.   She is a nursing student and men have been drooling after her since she was 12.  Skin slightly tanned, cheerful and bubbly with a lethal figure –she is definitely not from Seoul.  I’ve only been in Korea for a short time, but I already know that most of the women who look and act like Jenn are not from Seoul.  They are manufactured by a benevolent God somewhere in the Korean countryside, in a place called Gyeonggi-do, or something.  As we chat, men are staring at Jenn as they walk past.  Men who drive by are craning their heads.  I even see one guy walk past and then do a u-turn to look again!  They are not stares of venomous racial hatred or jealously.  They aren’t even looking at me; they are worshiping Jenn with their eyes.  My fellow men and I worship the same things, we aren’t so different after all.  In a way, we share the same kind of universal unspoken language.

Jenn joins me for a coffee.  She spent two years in Minnesota studying English.  We talk and talk.  Time passes quickly.  Jenn gets up to use the bathroom and I swear that the two university guys sitting across from us to the left look over and give me a thumbs up!  Unreal.  I input Jenn’s number into my  Motorola Razr.  I like my Razr, it is a big step up from the phone I got when I first arrived to Korea.  The large pre-paid Samsung brick phone that I bought from a Nigerian guy in Itaewon, the same guy who forgot to tell his girlfriend that he’d gotten a new number.  For six months I got calls from an angry Nigerian woman who could not be convinced that the phone no longer belonged to her ex-boyfriend!

Jenn and I watch a movie and then have dinner.  I notice that Jenn’s outfit is extremely well put together.  She is wearing jewelry that is quiet and subtle.  Everything she is wearing is effortlessly coordinated.  Her handbag is restrained and elegant.  Nothing she is wearing has any visible brand name.  I start to realize that Jenn is one of these rare 23 year olds who has her shit together.  The traits and confidence normally found in women ten years older.  The poise, the self-assured laugh.  Contrasting green pastel nail polish, subdued rings on five of her ten fingers, hair tied up in a bun with hoop earrings.  I’m in love and only the most minuscule shred of personal dignity prevents me from blurting out “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”  For every ten minutes we spend together, I want her one hundred times more.  Midnight rolls around.  Should I take my chances or should I be a gentleman?  I help Jenn wave down a taxi, and see her off.  I get my own taxi back home.  I arrive at my hovel, open the door and sit down to reconsider my day.  I reach for my phone to send Jenn a text message.

Wait, where is my phone?  Not in my back pocket.  I practically rip my pockets looking for the phone.  It must have fallen out in the taxi.  SHIT-FUCK-STUPID-GOD-DAMN-RETARDED-MORON-FUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!  I run back outside.  The taxi is long gone.  The phone was pre-paid so there was no way to recover the number.  That was the first and last time I ever saw Jenn.  Every time I see a Motorola logo, I think of Jenn.  I like to think that she tried to call me in vain.  By now we’d have been long married with a couple of kids running around, and a bunch of adult responsibilities.  We’d have a few wrinkles, we’d fight a few times, but in the end we’d take comfort in the knowledge that we were made for each other.  Instead, the taxi driver had my phone and all I was left with were the dreams of hope, and love, and happiness running through my fingers like sand.

Posted in Life in Korea | 4 Comments

He Went to Yonsei

The mood is subdued in the company kitchen on the 12th floor as the minions line up at the premium Italian espresso machine to pull shots of their liquid heroin; the brown muck that allows them to stave off sleep for hours on end and work punishing hours of overtime without pay.  Big city life in all it’s glory!  “What’d you do over the weekend?” asks Gomez Kim from accounting.  “Did you watch the National Geographic Channel for two days straight again?”  To which I reply “No Gomez, I didn’t.  But I did see some of the local four legged wildlife hunched over and puking in a Gangnam gutter on Saturday.”  I leave out the part where two university girls puked in my vehicle after six hours in a club, doing unspeakable things to a bottle of Maker’s 36 (I was the designated driver).  First, Tall Friend puked, and then Zebra puked after valiantly trying to point her head out the window.  I call them Tall Friend and Zebra (she was wearing black and white stripes) because I forgot their names 30 seconds after they told me.

I’d left an American expat friend at the bar, in the care of the gentle bartender while I dropped off Tall Friend and Zebra.  He’d pretty much blacked out.  When I returned to retrieve him, he was still slumped over in his chair.  When I slapped him on the shoulder there was no response, but after a few seconds he suddenly jumped up as if struck by lightning. The realization that he hadn’t settled his lifelong tab over at the Seoul pub had probably instilled in him a sense of social responsibility.  Now was not a good time to die.

Back in the office, someone offers gyopo colleague “K.” a shot of freshly pulled espresso.  K looks pallid and I can tell that he has been at the office all night.  “What gives?” I ask him.  K looks around squeamishly before motioning a few of us into a group huddle.  “Don’t tell anyone, but the police are here in the Big Boss’s office, and some shit went down at the end of last week.  You know that new guy we hired back in March, the accountant?”  I vaguely remember.  Dweebish, glasses, probably 130 lbs soaking wet.  “Yeah, he hasn’t come in at all this week, and there’s a bunch of money missing from the corporate accounts that we use to pay royalties to clients.”

Just then the Big Boss walks out of his office accompanied by two men who are obviously plain clothes police officers or detectives.  Nice of them to show up in plain clothes.  Very subtle.  They round the corner headed towards the HR office.  Paradise Choi from HR looks worried as the Big Boss and two detectives close in.  The door closes behind them.

“I heard he went to Yonsei University” says K.  “What’s that got to do with anything?” I ask.  “Jake, you don’t understand Korea at all” replies Gomez Kim.  I give Gomez Kim a glance and a slight eyebrow wrinkle that says ‘Fuck Off’.  “So who interviewed the guy?”  I ask.  K replies “It was probably Paradise Choi or Jen in HR.”  Jenn is the Korean American HR specialist who is supposed to interview all candidates in English after they’ve been pre-interviewed in Korean.  Jenn has a weakness for Oreo cookies, trashy novels and men with the letters “Dr.” before their names.  If Jenn hired the new guy, Jenn is probably fucked.

I walk past several cubicles to my humble desk.  I hear people whispering in rapid-fire Korean. I hear the word “Yonsei” several times.  I turn on my computer and begin to go through emails.  Over 80 emails.  Daunting.  Difficult to focus.  I scan the subject lines of all the emails, deciding to answer the ones that look positive now, and save the angry emails for later.  One email with the following subject line looks promising, “Dear Blessed friend, REQUEST FOR ASSISTANCE-STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL.”  The sender is one Dr. Nelson Adwale Okumose of the Nigerian Oil Ministry.  Seems legit.

Lunch at the sushi restaurant down the street.  Entire department at one table.  English chat trying to make it back and forth over the table while being machine-gun riddled with excited Korean gossip from all directions.  Verbal crossfire.  I switch seats with Gomez Kim so that I can sit at the edge of the table.  Gomez Kim eats like a pig and I want to be as far away from him as possible, but so does everyone else.  We’ve all seen him eat before.  Eating and talking at the same time.  Food and specks of food propelled from his gaping trap onto the table and into cups and side dishes.  Oblivious to anything and everything happening around him.  Genetic traits that Seoul’s taxi drivers have tried to wipe out for years with the most active form of natural selection.  And yet he remains.  I again hear strings of Korean with the word “Yonsei” sprinkled in.  “blah blah blah blah Yonsei blah blah Yonsei”.

I look over at American coworker Dave from Seattle.  Dave isn’t touching his sushi.  Dave is on a diet.  Apparently, Dave was walking with his girlfriend along the Cheongge stream and a group of small Korean children pointed at him and shouted “Sam Hammington!” and after that happened a few more times on a few more occasions, Dave finally googled “Sam Hammington” and promptly went on a diet.

Gomez Kim turns to me and says “Jake, are all the women in Yugoslovakia beautiful?”  Huh?  “What are you talking about?” I ask.  He replies “You know, Trump’s wife Ivanka (it’s Melania) is from Yugoslovakia (she’s from Slovenia).” I chide him, “Yugoslovakia is not even a country, for fucks sake, it’s not even a real place.”  He responds “Oh really, are you sure you know geography?”  Unreal.  We need to fire everyone in the HR department because they obviously don’t screen anyone who applies.

Back to the office for a seminar.  Turns out it is a sexual harassment awareness seminar conducted entirely in Korean by some company that does nothing but sexual harassment seminars.  I ponder why I am even sitting in on a Korean language sexual harassment seminar.  I guess we all have to sign a paper at the end saying that we attended, otherwise I would duck out.  A video embedded within a Powerpoint slide starts to play.  A Korean man approaches his female coworker and says “너는 섹시해” (you’re sexy).  The video pauses, and a big red “X” covers the screen.  Gomez Kim nods his head as if this is all new information to him.  The scene cuts to a different pair of co-workers.  The woman is at the copy machine and a male co-worker comes up behind her.  He puts his face over her shoulder and starts whispering in her ear.  We don’t hear what he is saying.  He gropes her back side.  Red “X” again.

40 more minutes of this followed by a QA session where the office’s most likely suspects drill the presenters with hypothetical sexual harassment scenario questions.  Back to work.  Boss is still with detectives.  I hear the boss mutter the word “Yonsei” several times.  Jenn from HR is crying at someone’s desk.  Paradise Choi from HR walks over to our side of the office.  I can tell she wants to smoke, but she recently joined the company’s anti-smoking incentive program.  I never really understood the anti-smoking incentive program.  They give monetary rewards to staff members who go certain lengths of time without smoking, and they rely on the ‘office snitch’ system to keep everyone honest.  Has it occurred to them that some people who never smoked in the first place have joined the incentive program in order to collect the reward money?  Probably not.

Paradise Choi confirms it, “67,000,000krw was stolen from the royalties accounts.  The new guy we hired is the main suspect.  He’s not answering his phone and nobody answers the door at his address.”  She adds, “He even went to Yonsei University, I can’t believe it.”  Now it is my turn, “Why do people keep mentioning that?  Who cares where he went to school.” To which she replies, “Jake, Yonsei is very prestigious, like Harvard (hah!), so only trustworthy and high class people can graduate from there.”  I ask Paradise Choi if she knows who Ted Kaczynski , the Unabomber, is and that he attended Harvard.  She replies “I think you are being not honest.  Only good people can go to Harvard.”  Unbelievable.

I continue, “Who did the reference checks on the new guy?”  Paradise Choi: “Reference check?  We checked his university, it was correct.”  I say, “I mean, who called his previous employer to check his work history?”  Paradise Choi stares at me blankly like I have just asked her the dumbest question she has ever heard.  She finally says “Why we check his work history?  He went to Yonsei!”  So, nobody called any of this guy’s previous employers, and I am guessing that no one got any sort of criminal background check done, and I’ll take a wild guess, a shot in the dark and assume that nobody looked at anything beyond this guy’s degree and the name of his school.  Classic!  They essentially hired this guy blind, with no information at all.  Someone who would have access to the entire company’s finances.

I’ll bet that Jenn in HR put his resume on the top of the pile after she saw the word “Yonsei” on it.  And I’ll bet her beady little eyes lit up when the guy came in for an interview.  She must be crying now because she realizes that she made a giant mistake and fucked the company out of $60,000USD by blindly hiring a guy who might have been a career criminal and for all we know could have been released from prison just months ago.  Jenn from HR, speak of the devil.  She walks in, tissue still in hand, eyes red from crying.  She says, “He went to Yonsei, I don’t understand…….and….and……and he promised he was going to take me out to dinner!…” she starts to bawl again.  Unbelievable.  Half of these people must be blood relatives of the big boss, because there is no other legitimate reason to have them on staff.  Note to self; speak to big boss after police leave, or possibly tomorrow.  We need to fire Jenn from HR.  Gomez Kim also needs to go…or maybe not….need him around for comic relief.  Plus, he makes all the other male staff look good.  But Jenn from HR absolutely has to go, and the HR people aren’t going to fire themselves, so the big boss will have to do it.

Night time comes.  The sun passes behind the perma-layer of toxic air pollutants, turning the sky brownish orange.  Kim, the guy we hired, our hero, the main suspect, is probably sitting on a beach in the Philippines with his 14 year old girlfriend trying to explain to her what “Yonsei” is.  Jenn from HR, if still employed, is probably replying to Dr. Nelson Adwale Okumose’s email with a job offer.

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Cellmates

The people around me seem to think that I am winning.  When I walk into the office on Monday morning, people stare at me expectantly, waiting for exciting stories about the exciting weekend that I must have had.  People associate me, rather wrongly, with the good times they wish they were having.  The truth is, most of the time I do absolutely nothing but stare at the wall or the ceiling or the TV screen, trying to will myself into a catatonic state so that the time might pass more quickly.  The money is mostly unspent, there’s nothing interesting on my reading list, the company email inbox is full of messages that I don’t want to read from people I don’t like, the good times are scarce and my Kakaotalk friend list has a grand total of eight contacts.  My phone only rings when someone wants to borrow money or needs a favor (or when voice phishers dial the wrong number).  It is Saturday night at 1:47am, and I am sitting alone at my keyboard after an 80+ hour work week.  I’m winning.

Sometimes when I get bored I search the internet for other people who were born on the same date that I was.  1983 was a good year, according to Wikipedia, 1983 saw the official beginning of the internet and the first cell phone call.  I share my exact birth date with a sumo wrestler, an actor, a serial killer, a singer, and a Polish footballer among countless others.  With all the people around the world born on the exact same day as myself, surely there must be at least some who will die on the same day that I die as well.  There must be at least one other person somewhere who will float through time and space and for exactly the same number of days, during the same exact time period that I do.  Someone who took their first breath and will take their last breath on exactly the same days that I did/will.

When I was a university student, I worked at a company that provided off-site document and data storage for large companies.  I worked this job among many others mostly because my parents refused to fund my university education, and that was largely due to me being what polite people might call “academically disinclined”.  I basically got shitty grades for the entire duration of my school career, and I had trouble staying awake during classes that didn’t interest me.  The very few teachers who took an interest in me must have had hearts of gold.  Near senior year of high school, our school administrators gave or sold a list of under-performing students to the local Marine Corps recruiter, figuring it was probably our last chance to obtain a regular paycheck and basic healthcare.  The recruiter called and visited my house relentlessly.  Instead of joining the military, I got a job and slowly paid my way through school with loans and a meager salary.  My parents even charged me rent.

Part of my job was taking physical hospital records and entering them into a database with the idea being that if there were a fire or disaster, and the physical copies were destroyed, alternate copies would be stored in databases scattered around the country for retrieval.  I had at my fingertips literally millions of my fellow city dwellers’ most confidential and intimate records.  Records of births, deaths, major operations, medical insurance claims that were approved or denied (most were denied), receipts from cosmetic surgeries, records of surgical malpractice, records of the utmost personal nature that one assumes are stored securely and locked away from all non-essential prying eyes.  On my breaks and when the workload was light, I’d surf this database.

At first I’d search for people with strange or funny names, people who had gone out and had their legal names changed to things like “Sacred Mighty Master Dragon Slayer”.  Sometimes I’d search for celebrity names (lots of people check into hospitals using fake celebrity names, it turns out, while real celebs check in using plain, average pseudonyms).  Sometimes I’d search using my postal code and the records of people living in my area would come up.  I’d find that someone had died in the house next to mine, or that one of my neighbors was fighting cancer and losing.  Once I searched the database using my birthday and a list of about 200 names came up.  Our company handled records for a few hospitals, but not every hospital in the city.  Finding over 200 other people with the same exact birth date as me was compelling, so I scrolled down the list of names one at a time.

My own name was on the list because I was born in the largest hospital in my hometown.  I scrolled and scrolled until I came across a name that I immediately recognized.  It was a guy that I’d gone to high school with.  The family name and spelling were so unique that I had no question I was staring at the medical records of my former classmate, who for the purpose of this post I will refer to as “Jeremy”.  Jeremy and I hadn’t spent any time together in high school, he was basically just another person who I’d passed in the hallway or saw in a few shared classes.  Jeremy was a letterman, a jock who did jock things and made people laugh in Spanish class with his (possibly intentional) butchering of every single word he was forced to read aloud.  I was not a jock, and I mostly slept in Spanish class.

Jeremy’s world and my world were pretty different.  His older brother was also a jock, and so I imagined that at home his father was probably a stocky, balding former quarterback who sat at the sidelines of football games cheering his sons on.  Mom was probably pretty, but passive, stuck in a home bursting with testosterone.  At least, that is what I imagined.  Jeremy’s medical file was about 30 pages long.  As I scrolled through the files, things like “intubated” and “tetraplegia” and “hospice care” appeared.  Everyone who attended my high school in the late 90’s will remember it quite well because it happened the night of Homecoming in our 4th year of high school.

Our team had won the game.  The crowds roared, the cheerleaders cheered, the band played a victory song and the players were heroes.  That night, several players from the team all parked their trucks on the football field in a big circle with the headlights facing the center of the circle, and did what jocks do; drank from a keg of beer that someone’s older brother had probably procured.  This was in September so the weather was cool but not cold, the skies probably clear.  They drank and drank and one by one they put their trucks in reverse and peeled out, leaving tire tracks on the field.  The following Monday there’d be hell to pay with the coach and principal but somehow all would be forgiven.  After all, they’d won the homecoming game.

Jeremy peeled out that night and drunkenly sped towards his home.  It was a slight miscalculation and a bit of loose gravel that sent his Tacoma rolling off the side of the road and upside down into a ravine.  When they found him, they assumed he was dead.  Turns out he was paralyzed from the neck down.  The following week, the school administration even sent grief counselors to talk to students who were traumatized by the incident.  Jeremy’s girlfriend stopped coming to school.  To say that everyone got a stern lecture on the horrors of drunk driving and underage drinking would be the understatement of the century.  The doctors put a tube down his neck, hooked him up to a ventilator and eventually, from what I read in his file, discharged him to a hospice.  The hospice, as it turns out, was on a street that ran perpendicular to the street that I lived on.  A normal looking house, outfitted with special beds, ventilators, and round the clock nurses to care for the 3-4 permanent residents who I assumed were in the same basic physical state as Jeremy.

I scrolled through his records for various years.  2001, 2002, all the way up to the current date (2005 at the time), Jeremy had been sitting in that same room, in that same hospice, hooked up to a ventilator, probably staring at a TV, or a wall, or a window all day long.  I’d walked past that same house every day of my life from elementary until I graduated from high school, and then in university I drove past the house on the way to class or work every day.  For several of those years, Jeremy had been in that house, possibly in a room facing the street.  There were not many details about his day to day life in the hospice, but I imagine that a nurse came in to empty his bed pan a few times a day, and perhaps re-adjust his breathing tube.  Someone probably came by once or twice a week to give him a sponge bath and adjust his withered body to prevent bed sores.  One would hope that someone came by to read to him, or turn on a TV for him, or adjust his reclining bed into the upward position so that on a nice day he might be able to look out the single small window and see life passing by.  I assume his family would visit from time to time, maybe on birthdays.  I doubted that any of his former friends could handle such a visit.

When I graduated from university, Jeremy was still in the same hospice.  When I got my first job, and as the seasons changed, and people went to watch the first Kill Bill movie in the theaters, Jeremy was still in that same room, staring up at the sky, or clouds, or trees from his bed.  Maybe he had posters on the walls, or photographs.  Girlfriends came and went, I worked to pay off my student loans, and eventually I got a job offer in Korea, and all the while Jeremy was still in that room, four walls and a bed, not much different from a prison cell with its occupant serving a life sentence.

Back in school, I’d never realized that Jeremy and I were born on the same day.  If we’d been friends or teammates, perhaps sharing a birthday would have bound us together.  Jeremy’s entire life was now and would be forever within those four walls, breathing through a tube, eating through a tube, shitting and pissing through tubes, watching kids climb the hill towards the same high school that we went to, year after year after year.  He was one year short of graduating.  Those four walls were his prison cell, but in his mind, he could go anywhere he wanted, he could travel.  I’ll bet that in his mind, the truck never flipped, and he is married his high school sweetheart, and has two sons who will grow up to play football.  They have a two story house with a two car garage and a big grass yard where the kids toss the football with dad.  The children run into the house without taking off their shoes and mom throws up her hands in resignation at the muddy footprints.

What Jeremy has is not a bedroom, it’s a container.  The TV, posters, tubes and nurses are not real.  The wife and kids, cookie cutter house and tossing a football on the grass are his real life.  As I passed the hospice house for the final time on the way to the airport, and to my new life in Korea, I looked towards the windows but the curtains were closed.  ‘Goodbye’, I thought.  By now Jeremy has lived in my own neighborhood longer than I have.  He’s been physically closer to my parents than I have in over ten years, right around the corner all this time.  In the past ten years, I’ve been through various forms of hell, depression, lawsuits, alienation from family, the loss of a loved one, the humiliation and financial destruction brought on by a failed business.  I’ve also experienced and continue to experience what people call ‘success’, if measured solely in the form of financial or material gain.

But I also dream.  What is reality, really?  In my dreams I’m walking on the beach, like I used to as a kid.  Everything that I hate and everything that drags me down fades away and the only immediate sensation I have is hot sand between my toes.  Thoughts of having a one man charcoal party inside my car with the windows taped up momentarily vanish.  No, I’m walking and walking towards the horizon with a bottle of water in my hand, the sea is to my right and the sandy cliffs to my left.  I drink water from the water bottle until it is empty and I keep walking.  The wind is blowing, the waves are crashing, and seaweed washes up on shore.  The sand reflects the sun’s heat which rises in waves off in the distance.  I can smell the seaweed and I can hear the seagulls.

Every once in a while, Jeremy’s nurse will be distracted, or stressed out, and she will re-insert his feeding tube or catheter tube the wrong way or with too much pressure and this will stir Jeremy enough to drag him out of his front yard, away from his wife and kids and back into the little four walled prison his body inhabits, with the Filipina nurse, and the table surfaces that smell like disinfectant and the TV that is always on the same channel.  He will look out the window and see kids with backpacks walking towards our old high school.  It looks like it might rain. The kids look smaller than usual with their giant backpacks.  Freshmen on the way to high school for the first time.  His nurse will come back into the room and re-adjust his piss tube so that Jeremy can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to sunshine and tossing the football with his two sons out on the grass while his wife bakes bread in the kitchen with the windows open, like she always does.

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Situational Ethics: Better Call Saul

Office Update:

Last week in the company cafeteria I did as I always do and tried to eat my food without raising my eyes or making eye contact with anyone.  Eye contact apparently being some sort of subtle invitation for others to come and invade your personal space, interrupt your eating, and pollute the environment with lame stories about their families, etc.  However, when dealing with the foreigner, social norms are often tossed out the window, and thus coworker Gomez Kim (name changed to protect dignity) invites himself to sit across from me and immediately starts talking.  Gomez Kim works in accounting and is fond of telling people “I know everyone’s salary”.  The family photo that sits on his desk reveals a wife who is larger than him and who doesn’t smile for photos, and two children, a young boy and girl.  I am almost completely sure that his wife exercises total control over him outside of the work place.  She is taller than him, has a face that only a mother could love, and she also outweighs him.  It is not hard to imagine her physically abusing Gomez Kim whenever he ‘steps out of line’.

Gomez Kim is what Koreans might refer to as ‘oily’ (느끼하다), and what you and I would call sketchy, shifty, dodgy, a grease-ball, cringe-inducing, etc.  Most of what he says is generally offensive, commenting on people’s weight, age, personal habits or appearance and often times regurgitating outdated stereotypes about foreigners (blacks are criminals, white women are promiscuous etc.) in order to see what kind of reaction he can get.   My reader however will know that dealing with such individuals in the ‘western way’, by telling them to ‘fuck off’, is completely incompatible with the Korean work environment, where genuflection to one’s seniors and a bare minimum of sham polite tolerance for everyone else is the norm.  In simple terms, bowing and tongue biting are the social graces that will serve to keep you employed until you outlast your general usefulness or until you simply become ‘too old to work’ (Korean age ~48).

Today Gomez Kim has another fascinating Wile E. Coyote story with which to regale one of the company foreigners.  “You know last month I was gone for a week.”  Yes, Gomez Kim was mysteriously absent from work for a week.  “Yeah, I heard.  You had a car accident.  Are you okay?  You were in the hospital for a week” I say, giving him the attention he is probably seeking.  “No, no I’m fine.  I wasn’t really injured at all.”  Of course, yours truly has been living in Korea for a decade and knows full and well why Gomez Kim was really in the hospital for a week, but I string him on anyway, hoping to hear some kind of new and exciting criminal mastermind narrative.  “I went to the hospital because I wanted to get money from the other driver by pretending to be injured.”  In western countries it is mostly taboo to discuss criminal activities at the company lunch table, and for this reason, I prod him some more.  “Gomez, where did this horrible accident occur?”

A shit eating grin appears on his face, so I know I’m about to be stupefied.  “It happened in the Emart parking garage.  The man behind me bumped into my car.”  My brain misfires and I momentarily forget to bite my tongue.  “You mean to tell me that you, your wife, and your two young children were in the parking garage at Emart, and another car bumped you from behind at what, 1 kilometer per hour, and you got out of the car, and rolled around on the ground complaining of severe neck pain.  And like, you did that in front of your own children as well as the CCTV cameras?  Seriously?

He replies “Well, you have to understand,” (my situation/culture)  “This is what we always do when someone hits our car.”  Is he using the term “we” in a collective way, referring to all Koreans?  Surely not, …right?  “Oh, I didn’t know that.  I learn new things every day” comes my standard reply to this type of statement.  A long time ago a more experienced waegook boss, an old Korea hand, drilled this sentence into my head.  Said it was the single most important phrase that prevented him from being fired over the years.  Whenever he heard about some absurd fuckery, he’d recite that phrase ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.  I learn something new every day’, and he’d say it with a convincing face, playing the ignorant waegook chimp, eager to learn from the wisdom of his local coworkers and ‘seniors’.

“Yes, so I went to the hospital, and the staff admitted me for a week.”  I bite my tongue.  What I’m really thinking is ‘You mean a fully qualified Korean doctor, after hearing that you were bumped into in the Emart parking garage, decided it would be prudent to have your body occupy a bed in the hospital for an entire 7 days?  And this was someone who had graduated from a real medical school and had a real medical license, not one that he had obtained from a cereal box, right?  Get the fuck out of here!’  But what I really say is “Oh, I see, it must have been boring staying in the hospital for a whole week.”  Gomez Kim nods at me.  “Yes, it was boring and I had to share a room with seven other patients, but I could go outside to smoke, and I had my smartphone, so I could watch movies.”

Intrigued about Gomez Kim’s foray into the exciting but seedy underworld of criminality and insurance fraud, I inquire “So how much cash did you end up getting?” Another shit eating grin.  “Well, actually I got nothing.”  Astounded, I ask “You got nothing?  What happened?”  I am now laughing inside.  “Well, actually, when I went to the police station to file my claim for hospital expenses I was very nervous because everyone was looking at me.  I started sweating.  The officer in charge started asking me questions rudely and he said that nobody believed my story about being injured and that I should pay my own hospital bills.”  Internal Laughter Meter (TM):  Hyena Status.  “Wait, so you got no money AND you have to pay for your entire week in the hospital?  How much is that going to cost you?”  He then replies “The hospital bill is 940,000 won, plus the police wrote on the accident report that I was not injured, so our company is deducting those 7 days from my vacation time.”  My internal self is on the floor rolling around laughing.

One enduring thing about Gomez Kim is that he has no problem telling face-losing stories if he thinks that it will garner him some kind of sympathy.  So the net profit from his ill-conceived criminal enterprise was -940,000 won, a public shaming at the police station, and 7 days of lost vacation time.  Plus I am guessing (or hoping) that his name is now input into some type of insurance fraud blacklist.  But questions remain.  At the time of the incident, did his children actually witness his ‘Hollywood action’ and fully understand what was going on?  Did his wife (larger, domineering) force him to get out of the car and roll around on the ground claiming neck pain?  Did anyone bother to ask the hospital why they admitted him into inpatient care for 7 days despite him having no visible injuries?  Did his occupying the bed prevent an actual sick patient from occupying the bed?  Are most of the other incare patients also pretending to be sick/injured?

If a doctor is willing to hospitalize a patient for 7 days despite a complete lack of detectable symptoms, can genuinely sick people trust said doctor to provide actual legitimate medical care?  How can I tell if I am actually experiencing a medical problem, or if the hospital/doctor are simply running an insurance scam?  Do I need all of the pills they are giving me, or are these pills just another way for them to pad their over-inflated paychecks?  Is casual insurance fraud the norm, and is it considered a kind of supplemental form of income/part time job by the lower classes?  And furthermore, did Gomez Kim’s wife properly beat the shit out of him when he came home after a week in the hospital with a 940,000won bill?  He did seem to have what looked like a black eye the week prior.  Perhaps he “bumped into a closet” or “fell down”.

Posted in Acting a Fool in Public Places | 8 Comments

Box Living Deluxe

Apartment life carries with it a specific type of boredom only noticeable to those who grew up performing an abundance of menial yet enjoyable house-related tasks.  There is no need to wander outside on Sunday morning because there is no newspaper to collect.  There are no plants to water, no lawn to mow, no sprinkler system to tinker with and no garden to tend to.  I don’t need to take a wire brush to the BBQ grill because there is no BBQ grill.  My groceries are all delivered to my house and I always have enough beer to last me through the weekend.

No oil to change, no garage to sweep, no dog to walk and washing my car involves driving to another part of town and putting coins into a machine.  The neighbors don’t wave.  Every time the young woman next door sees me in the hall way, she jumps back and says “깜짝이!”.  Seeing a foreigner is still enough to warrant the Korean equivalent of “Oh shit!”.  It would probably be pointless to mention that we’ve been neighbors for over a year.  The neighbor on the other side of my place always leaves her shoes in the hallway, which leads me to believe that her place is so packed with junk that space for even one more pair of shoes is non-existent.  The couple down the hallway enjoy a level of modesty that peaks somewhere around leaving their underwear on a drying rack in the hallway every weekend.

City life in Seoul brings with it other special time consuming pleasures that make locking oneself inside their apartment all weekend the surest source of contentment.  Last Sunday morning I made the mistake of going to a department store, where I waited over 30 minutes for a parking spot, and where inside I waited over 30 minutes for a seat at a restaurant and consequently upon leaving sat in traffic for over 30 minutes trying to exit the department store garage.  I have learned this lesson countless times, but I still have not internalized it.

Trips across town to Costco or IKEA are an exercise in foolishness and rage control as the lines of cars queue up in a snake like arrangement around the corner and down the street for two blocks just waiting for a chance to enter the congested garage.  What should take an hour or two ends up taking four or five hours, most of which is spent either sitting in lines of cars, or wading through the dense masses of people, most of whom seem to be contentedly killing time with thoughts of buying anything far from their minds.  As most households are up to their eyeballs in debt, buying furniture must be a fanciful pipe dream for many of the families loitering around IKEA on the weekends.  Most of them are likely worried first and foremost about paying back the unscrupulous private money lenders they borrowed from to live in their outdated and overpriced plastic apartments after the banks turned them down, then come the credit card debt and the astronomical education fees for their kids.  What’s left goes to food and utilities and making minimum payments on stacks of bills to delay the inevitable for another 30 days.

More and more, advances in online shopping and delivery service eliminate the need for these energy leeching, time consuming trips.  More and more, one starts to live for high speed internet and 4 for ₩10,000 beer deals at the convenience store.  As a child, I could look out windows on all four sides of my home.  Outside one window was a garden with fountain.  Outside another was the front lawn and peaceful tree lined street.  A third window looked at the side of a neighbor’s home, and the fourth had a panoramic view of a canyon where tall eucalyptus trees blew in the wind.

Now I look out my windows on one side and in one direction.  Directly in front of me I see the massive face of a 16 floor officetel that is 9 units across.  With mixed use units starting on the third floor, there are 117 units facing my window directly across the street.  In a grid pattern starting with the first floor going up and labeling the units 1-9 from left to right, one can get acquainted with one’s neighbors without the need to wave or exchange normal human pleasantries.

12 x 1 is occupied by two girls who have piles of shopping bags and shoe boxes, and a large vanity where they get ready each night for whatever type of job starts after 9pm.  12 x 2 is directly next door and is some type of office where at night a solitary man leans back in his chair at his cubicle, kicks his feat up one his desk and watches something for hours on end on his computer screen.  I can’t tell what he is watching because the screen isn’t facing the street.  In 9 x 4 we have another office where a few workers toil late into the night, every night, doing some type of work that requires every computer to have two monitors running simultaneously.

Directly next door in 9 x 5 is what looks like a one-room being used as a dwelling by a young family.  I only ever see the mother and the toddler.  The room is small and clothing racks are always out drying clothes and making the space seem even smaller.  It is truly bizarre to see workers dressed in suits toiling at their desks in 9 x 4, while literally next door, separated by 1 foot of wall, is a mother in pajamas crawling on the floor with a baby.  If there is a husband/father, and if he ever comes home, he is yet to be seen.  Moving down to 6 x 6, on most nights one will observe a middle aged man standing at the window smoking.  The window has latches on the side, so it cracks open about 8 inches on one side, enough to vent most of his smoke out into the night’s air.  Without fail, each time he finishes a smoke, one can see the glowing orange ember arc slowly down to the footpath below where someone else will either be hit by it, or sweep it up in the morning.

4 x 6 is a large residential spread, with one large room occupied by a giant bed.  Perhaps 90 percent of the room is taken up by the bed which has a large TV at the foot.  A large presumably single middle aged woman lies on the bed with the lights on most nights watching TV while two cats crawl over the white covers.  Two over at 4 x 8 is another residential unit that is devoid of everything except a sofa and a TV in the living room.  A girl, probably early 20s can be seen cooking in the kitchen most nights, and a man, mid-50’s can be seen eating in front of the TV.  She sometimes joins him but more often than not takes her food into another room.  It is clear by the dynamic at play that they are father and daughter; the mother notably absent at all times.  The girl sometimes smokes in her room at night, probably an electronic cigarette, and stares at the wall for long periods of time.

About 50 percent of occupants with units facing the street have chosen to cover up their windows and thus deprive would-be prying eyes of a glance into their riveting day to day lives.  11 x 2 has applied a sheet of artificial frosted glass over their entire street facing window to let in a bit of light while obscuring the view from potential peeping toms.  8 x 2 has opted for a large pink sheet secured in place over the window using duct tape.  6 x 1 has affixed cardboard boxes over the entire window, also with duct tape, in a possible bid to block out all sunlight.  Perhaps the occupant works a night shift somewhere.  Some of the classier units have what look like high quality blinds and drapes.  A Korean acquaintance once told me that most people don’t bother buying things like nice furniture, or drapes or blinds because they know that they will move again soon, and the furniture won’t match the new place, and the blinds/drapes won’t match the size of the new windows, and why buy nice blinds only to let the next occupant have them for free?  Some enterprising occupants try to sell the blinds/drapes on to the next occupant.  Hence the abundance of windows with cardboard or sheets taped over them.

Outside of every window sprawls a monotonous recognizable landscape of homogenous franchise businesses, tacky apartments and hideous oversized neon signs.  The screen golf place is next to the Chinese delivery place which is next to a bakery, café, real estate office and fried chicken place.  A convenience store, a pizza place and a restaurant with sea creatures swimming in a tank out front -some of them are floating belly up at the top of the tank, but nobody seems to mind.  Around the back side of the building are some singing rooms, room salons, and a conveniently placed motel with an enclosed pathway leading directly from the room salon so that Johns don’t have to risk being exposed.  At home their bored middle-aged wives have long since tucked the kids in and are likely on beer number three, watching a TV drama and trying to get drunk quickly in order to forget how much their partners disgust them.  The age-old marriage fantasy having become boring instant it assumed material form, their TVs flickering late at night through windows in a vast sea of concrete cookie-cutter apartments.  The TV dramas are fake and sanitized and thus less threatening/challenging to their shallow lives.  The big city and the suburbs are full of lonely people.  The more densely populated the place, the lonelier the people.

From here we fast forward to daytime and zoom to the local Starbucks, which to many serves as a temporary escape from the branded, stamped concrete landscape.  On any given afternoon, housewives can be seen in groups or pairs shout-talking loudly about the minor crises they encounter on a daily basis.  “Minsoo’s teacher said he’s been misbehaving in class, but that can’t be true!  I’m going to go right down to that school on Monday and give her a piece of my mind.  Young women these days think they are queens!”  At another table, “…and then Yoo-na was almost late to math academy!  Can you believe that bus driver?  I should call and have him fired, he’s too old to be driving a bus anyhow.”  And at the table next to that one, “I know he’s been out with that young bitch they just hired again.  I can smell it on him and he always gets home late.  Whenever I get in the shower, he gets in bed and pretends that he is already sleeping.  He hasn’t touched me in months!” and “My sister’s husband got a raise and large bonus this year, but my husband has been in the same department forever.  How did I get so unlucky?”.

Inordinate amounts of time spent discussing the education of children and other mundane things, to largely no effect.  The more the mothers seek perfection in their kids, the less likely they are to obtain it.  Generous newspaper and TV show references to the various roles that housewives play are nothing more than a polite way to mask the fact that they are nobodies.  These imaginary crises and chaotic days hide the vacuity of their existence.  It is an anecdote to the fact that nothing important ever really happens.  And when these minor crises don’t actually exist, they will create them because how else are they going to spend the 16 waking hours of emotional and intellectual poverty?  Nowhere to go, not a part of anything meaningful, theirs is a prison that requires no walls.  Because modern Korean society is no longer communal, their only significant relationships are with their largely absentee husbands, and most of their emotional and social needs are met by their children who are unqualified to carry the emotional baggage of a grown parent.  When they aren’t busy passing their emotional quirks and character defects on to their children, they are spreading them to whoever will listen to them for an hour at Starbucks over a cup of the cheapest coffee.

Day again turns to night and we zoom back across the night sky to the officetel where one has to wonder what happens behind all of the covered and obscured windows.  Deep down in some uncorrupted corner of our minds, we want to believe that something wonderful is happening behind those covered windows.  A family is bonding.  An aging person is being cared for by a younger family member.  A father is doing a puzzle with his son.  Someone is happily browsing a wedding photo album.  A family of four are all sitting down to eat dinner together at the same table without a single member glued to the glowing screen of a smartphone.  The windows that are uncovered have already told us the full story, but we don’t want to believe that behind the covered windows is just another mom playing with her toddler alone, another middle aged divorcee smoking by the window.  Another obese woman is watching TV with her two cats, and more middle aged men are sitting at their office work desks “working overtime” with their shoes off, beer in hand, watching baseball games or bootleg movies on their PCs.

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments

Late Night Drinks with Other Waegs Part 16: Cosmic Entropy

Itaewon, Wednesday night. American friend Henry has aged 15 years in the span of 5. I think this, but refrain from saying it. Why kick a man when he’s already down? I haven’t seen Henry since last summer. Due to a variety of factors that I can only imagine, the most glaring of which being his inability to earn the six figures he was making when they first met, Henry’s K-wife has filed for divorce and he’s been living in a tiny one-room studio provided by his employer for several months now. He sits down and helps himself to beer from the pitcher I’ve ordered. This is the part where I am supposed to tell him that he is wasting his life in Korea, and he is at rock bottom, and it’s time for him to scrape together whatever his wife hasn’t taken, put his brain and his ivy league degree to use and depart from Korea immediately.

I know the “It’s time to leave Korea” speech from memory because other expats give it to me routinely, and in fact I have given this speech to Henry before, several times, over a span of years. It’s time to leave Korea. You’re wasting your talent, you’re going nowhere, your life is whirlpooling round and round the toilet bowl, getting closer to endgame where everything goes black, a kind of rock-bottom social singularity. But it isn’t so simple, and valleys can only exist if peaks do as well. In fact, despite what storytellers would like you to think, nobody starts life on a downward slide. Motion in any direction requires push or pull; energy. You remember that from elementary science class, right? You are where you are as a result of energy expended to move you from one place to another, you didn’t just ‘end up’ here.

Rather than the whirlpool model of expat self-destruction, what more commonly happens is akin to cosmic entropy (now we are in middle school science class). Most expats don’t see the end coming, it merely happens around them without their noticing it. Simple systems start to break down, but it happens slowly. I can actually plot it out in Henry’s case. It started when he lost his job at Lehman Brothers. His wife told him not to worry, and that he’d find another similar job but there was something not quite right about the tone of her voice. Was she saying what she was really thinking?

And then when he couldn’t get another similar job, and started teaching English, more cracks appeared. Over time, he got fewer and fewer home cooked meals, until finally his wife said “You can manage to feed yourself right? I’m so busy.” Meals were prepared for the kids, but not for him. Eventually, almost imperceptibly, his patterns changed and he started to eat exclusively outside of his home. More cracks in the crystal, and the cracks are starting to become visible to others. Fewer visits to the in-laws house, and eventually no visits. He gets home from work and says “Hello” as he walks in the door. There is no answer, and yet his wife and two kids are sitting right there in the living room. They’ve clearly heard his greeting, but why haven’t they responded? Craaaack.

His wife no longer asks where he’s been, if he’s eaten, or what he has been doing. She has her side of the bed and he has his. She doesn’t even bother getting up at the same time as he does anymore. She’s asleep when he leaves and asleep when he gets home most of the time. Does she ever actually not sleep? What’s happening with the kids at school? Nobody tells him. The kids. That’s right, the kids. At first it seemed like such a good idea to have kids. Little beings to love and cherish and grow with and guide. Little versions of him and her; ultimate symbols of their love for one another. Yes, the kids seemed like such a good idea but now they don’t even look up when he walks in the front door. They are sure that he is a disappointment as a father. She’s poisoned them with her brand of bitterness, passive misery stamped on her face at all times. More cracks.

And all of this happens so gradually that he doesn’t seem to notice. Another summer and winter come and go. There are elementary graduations where everyone is smiling and pretending to be happy. There are brief moments when somebody laughs at home, but they catch themselves and quickly shut down. He realizes the pictures of his wife and kids he has in his wallet are over 5 years old, why haven’t they taken more recent photos together? Everyone must be busy, he tells himself. And before you know it, this family man who previously spent every waking moment with his adoring wife and two children is suddenly blessed with all sorts of freedom and free time. In fact, you see him out in pubs drinking alone. He hardly realizes the dramatic change that has occurred because to him everything is static; same job, same hours, coming home at the same time and doing all the same things day in and day out. A minor change here and there, but he doesn’t realize that minor changes only happen for so long before they become large, life-altering changes.

When everything is static and predictable, and any sort of dynamism is absent, then time can only be measured by the wrinkles on your face, or the number of grey hairs on your head. He changed slowly, but his environment, to him, has changed at the speed of light. Just yesterday he was on his honeymoon. Just last week his kids were in diapers. He’s been on the job hunt for a short while, but not long enough to come up with anything. Not long enough? It’s been eight years. The kids aren’t in diapers anymore, one of them, the one he has trouble communicating with, is actually in middle school. Simple systems have collapsed. Entropy. Donald Trump is worth $4 billion dollars. Donald Trump is 69 years old. Henry is 41 years old. Donald Trump would, without even having to think about it, pay his entire $4 billion fortune to be 41 years old again. But he can’t. That energy only moves in one direction. Henry would give everything he had to be back home again with his family, they way it used to be, but everything he has is not enough.

Simple systems can maintain themselves with very little input. Advanced systems require advanced input and advanced participants, but simple systems like marriage or family require simple input, provided all parties are willing to internalize whatever is required of them to maintain the system. When one party stops caring or loses interest, even simple systems collapse.  All those times she left the house, she wasn’t actually leaving the house, she was leaving him.

And then came the divorce papers and the “You need to move out now and find your own place”. Yes, you paid for the apartment that you lived in with your family, but no, it’s not yours anymore. She refers to the kids as “my kids” and not “our kids”, the apartment is “my apartment” not “our apartment”. Only then does he realize that the gears aren’t turning anymore and everything has disintegrated. He has lost everything he once had, and all that remains is energy and information, and perhaps little cosmic particles of human affection, if he’s managed to grip them tightly in the palm of his hand for years and years while everything else silently fell apart around him. Perhaps that’s what the picture in his wallet is; the only tiny molecule of human affection that he has managed to hold on to. His entire life fit into a single cardboard box, which for the most part remains fully intact weeks later on the floor of his one-room.

The family picture in his wallet is now over 8 years old. Why does he keep it? Stubborn. Yesterday was his birthday and nobody contacted him. I’m curious; does he finally feel free? Does he even realize what kind of life he was living? Will the “It’s time to leave Korea” speech finally hit home? Henry drains and entire mug of beer. What will he have to say? He suddenly begins to speak. He looks me straight in the face and says “So, I’ve been trying this online dating thing, and you won’t believe….”

Posted in Late Night Drinks with other Waegs | 23 Comments

The Smell of Fresh Cut Grass

The Kims moved into the house opposite ours and slightly up the street. I believe that the Kims were the only Asian family living on our street. At the garage sale, Mr. Kim expressed interest in some old cabinets and tools, and eventually purchased a few items. He was polite and reserved. He wore the simple clothing of a man who worked for a living and was quietly, humbly successful. Very understated but always neat and tidy, with his shirt always tucked in and his shoes always clean. Walking past the Kim’s house, you could glance between the fence boards and see that their pool was empty. Mr. Kim never put water in the pool, probably because none of the Kims could swim. It was not out of laziness or lack of pride, as Mr. Kim kept his front yard immaculate, and the grass always trimmed and bagged. Yes, it must have been that the Kims could not swim. This symbol of great American life was simply something they could not relate to. Having lived in Korea for a decade, I now know why.

Turns out Mr. Kim was living with his wife, four daughters, and his mother in law. This is probably why Mr. Kim was so often seen outside tending to his yard, and drinking beer. I never saw the inside of the Kim house, and the Kim daughters were all middle and high school aged, the oldest being around 12th grade and the youngest possibly around 7th grade. A real estate agent told my parents that it was a four bedroom house. The garage sale was the only time I’d really seen Mr. Kim up close, though he would from time to time wander over to our yard as my father was doing yard work, and have a beer and a smoke.  My father was basically a country boy, and to him, Mr. Kim must have seemed part alien and part novelty, perhaps the first Asian person he’d ever had contact with outside of Vietnam.  But Mr. Kim was a business owner and a hard worker, and my father reserved the deepest respect for people who built something from nothing, so Mr. Kim was alright in his book.

I remember one summer when my father and I loaded an old mattress into our truck, and were driving it to the local landfill. It was a king sized mattress that we’d just replaced. I was about 13. As we drove down the road towards the landfill, the mattress suddenly broke free from the ropes in the bed of the pickup truck and flew out the back onto the road. My father pulled over to the side of the road, and we got out to drag the mattress to the side of the road. As we walked towards the mattress, a white Volkswagen van pulled over and out came a man waving at us. It was Mr. Kim. He’d stopped to help us lift the mattress back into the truck. After living in Korea, I’ve come to realize that Mr. Kim was not a typical Korean. He seemed to take to American life and culture like a fish to water. He had left Korea’s ‘fuck-you-I-don’t-know-you’ culture in his rear view mirror, tossed his Korean passport in the trash and gotten a one-way ticket to the States. He was a decent human being, and a good neighbor. “We sure are lucky Mr. Kim was behind us” my father said.

The only thing that ever stood out about Mr. Kim was that he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time outside of his house. He spent a lot of time cutting grass. He cut the grass, and then cut the grass again, and when he was done, he got down on his hands and knees and scissor-cut the blades of grass that the lawn mower had missed. Mr. Kim probably cut more grass than he had, in fact it was not uncommon for him to cut his neighbors grass as well. The Kims, we found out, either ran or owned a 7-11 convenience store in a much seedier part of the city, but they seemed to have a full time staff, and thus a generous amount of free time outside of work. Mr. Kim grew vegetables and pomegranates. He painted and re-painted his fences. He cut his grass weekly, and did the edges of the sidewalk and walkway by hand. He built a bird house. He built a squirrel house. He dug a large pond in a corner of his yard and filled it with fish. In the early evening as the sun was going down, he’d stand on the sidewalk and stare proudly at what he had accomplished. He’d smoke and smoke, but would never throw his cigarettes on the ground. He had a large Folgers coffee tin in his garage that acted as his ash tray and I often saw it filled to the top.

One day during winter vacation, I was riding my bicycle home from a friend’s house, and as I rounded the corner to our street I saw flashing lights and police cars parked across the street from our house. An ambulance sped past me. My mother and father were standing on the grass in front of our house, looking across the street. A police officer was talking to a distraught Mrs. Kim. Everyone was standing out front, but nobody was doing anything, kind of how people act when there is a shark attack at the beach.

Mr. Kim had fallen off the third floor roof while hanging some Christmas lights. My father was outside at the time, and was certain that Mr. Kim had jumped. “It was clear as day. He wasn’t hanging any Christmas lights. He was up there like he was gonna clean the gutters, but he didn’t have a spade or pressure washer. He was just kinda looking over the edge of the roof towards the empty pool and smoking a cigarette. I was gonna go over and ask ‘im if he needed any help cleanin’ the gutters. He took a long drag off that cigarette, stubbed it out, walked to the edge and dove right off, straight into that empty pool. No scream, no nothin’, saw it clear as day. The sound of him hittin’ the bottom of that pool made me sick to my stomach.”

According to my father, the drop from the third floor roof to the deep end of the empty pool was about 50 feet. When the paramedics arrived, Mr. Kim was not dead, but was barely holding on. Days and weeks went by. Neighbors wished the Kim family well. “Do you think the Kims will be okay? Maybe we should ask her if she needs anything.” I’d hear neighbors talk and express their concern for the family. Apparently the eldest daughter had seen Kim fall from the living room window. Mr. Kim had at least one nasty compound fracture, and had lost a large quantity of blood, which had pooled at the deepest end of the empty pool. The girl was probably traumatized.

A week or so passes and my father is in the garage, smoking and staring out at the evening sky. The police tape has been removed from the Kim yard and the grass has started to grow longer than Mr. Kim would have kept it. The next day a neighbor would go over and mow the lawn for Mrs. Kim. “All those women. Can you imagine? Six women in one house, and poor old Mr. Kim. probably couldn’t sleep with any of them.  Bras hanging from shower rods, lipstick on the drinking glasses, and long hairs in all of the drains. Man, oh man..” My father exhaled. I’d sometimes seen Mr. Kim cutting grass late at night. I imagined his home littered with nylon stockings and Barbie dolls. Perhaps he and Mrs. Kim had tried everything possible to have a son but it just wasn’t in the cards.

Mr. Kim came back several months later, walking with a cane. I didn’t see him cut the grass so much anymore and he didn’t come around for beer or smokes, but I did see him up on the roof a few times, staring down into that empty pool while smoking a cigarette.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Value

I was 12 years old when my grandfather passed away in the summer of ‘96.  Grandpa Jack was not my real grandfather, rather, he was the man my grandmother married after my real grandfather spiraled down a path of cash and drug fueled self-destruction culminating in his untimely, unnatural death.  Grandpa Jack, however, might as well have been our real grandfather as far as anyone was concerned.  A gentleman, patient, well-spoken and dedicated to family life, it was a second marriage for him as well, and a marriage that lasted to the end.

When a person dies, certain realities and unpleasant matters of practicality begin to set in.  All of the banks and credit card companies have to be notified.  Pension managers and lawyers require phone calls.  And then there is all of the stuff.  Stuff that a person accumulates over the years.  Objects and items that are important to them, but trivial to other people.  My grandfather didn’t have lots of stuff, but the stuff he had, he held on to for long periods of time and took good care of.  Like most men in his generation, the maintenance of machines, the polishing of shoes, the oiling of baseball gloves, and the neat and orderly arrangement of one’s personal effects were practically second nature.  People thought before buying, took good care of what they purchased, and used things for as long as they could be used before discarding or repairing them.  Then there are the items of sentimental value.  There were Zippo lighters from his military service, awards and plaques from his years as a company man at a big oil firm.  There were objects of curiosity that he picked up from all around the world, a sword cane from Singapore, a gold watch with the face of a Saudi King on the dial from one of his trips to the middle east.  There were several model sail boats, the old kind that used wooden pieces.

And then there was all of the furniture that my grandmother no longer needed as she transitioned into a small apartment.  Desks, work benches, cabinets, bar stools etc.  With nobody in the family needing new furniture, we did what most Americans do and loaded all of the furniture into our garage to be sold at a garage sale at some later date.  The garage sale; as stereotypically American as lawn art, apple pies, and baseball.  Every weekend in our suburban middle class neighborhood, signs would be taped up, garage doors would open, goods would be pushed out for display, and this great American tradition would commence.  Signs were cut from poster board and out came the giant Sharpie markers and rolls of tape to produce sign after sign.  We’d ride our bikes around the neighborhood plastering up these signs on every lamp post.  “GARAGE SALE: tools, furniture, golf clubs, etc.  Saturday 8AM to 1pm.”

Early Saturday morning before 8AM, I walk out to the garage and turn on all of the lights.  Stuff.  Lots of stuff.  So much stuff.  My grandfather had seen fit to hold on to all of this stuff, and yet here we were, about to sell nearly object he ever cherished for pennies on the dollar, to total strangers.  Very American indeed.  Objects with value.  Objects that stored fond memories of the past.  The value of the handmade cane umbrella was not in its fine quality, but in its back story.  That rainy day in Singapore when my grandfather and grandmother ran from their taxi to the side of the street and the entrance of a local market.  He, holding his coat over my grandmothers head so she wouldn’t get wet.  She, completely delighted to be accompanying him on yet another business trip to what seemed like the far reaches of the world.  The child-like laughter coming from these two people who were just about to enter their twilight years together, seemingly without a care in the world.  Cancer is a bitch.  It grows slowly and without any initial symptoms.  Most people with cancer wakeup with a smile and go about their daily lives without a care in the world.  They do this because they do not know that they have cancer.

A vendor with a big smile, welcoming the two Americans into his small shop and offering them some towels to dry off and a place to sit down.  Umbrellas of all sorts.  This man must have been a third or fourth generation craftsman.  He must have had hundreds of umbrellas in all colors lining the walls of his small shop.  Bamboo umbrellas with floral prints and real ivory handles.  Subtle colored canvas umbrellas with polished light and dark grained wooden handles, some wrapped in leather or crocodile skin.  What a wonderful shop, what perfect timing.  My grandfather picks a large blue umbrella with curved bamboo handle.  He’s not the type to seriously negotiate the price and the shopkeeper isn’t the type to take advantage of an old couple on vacation. Money changes hands and back out into the rain they go, putting the umbrella to immediate use.

My grandfather held onto that umbrella for what must have been 35 years, and there it sat, upright in a canister next to some golf clubs and old furniture, ready to be snapped up by some early morning bargain hunter completely oblivious to its history.  Countless items that meant so much to one person, have now seemingly lost all of their value upon that person’s passing.  The value of an object dies with the owner and it becomes worth only what a stranger is willing to pay for it.  The items that don’t sell will end up in a landfill buried under layers of dirt.  The owner and at least some of his objects, ironically, end up sharing a similar fate.

Fuck it.  I take the umbrella out of the canister.  Everything else can go, but I figure I’ll keep the umbrella.  It’s 8AM and the cars filled with early morning bargain hunters are beginning to pull up.  The door bell rings before I have a chance to open the garage door and officially begin the garage sale.  I open the door and standing before me is an Asian man in shorts and a polo shirt.  He has an easy smile and a relaxed demeanor.  I vaguely recognize him as one of our neighbors.  As it would turn out, Mr. Hwang was the first Korean person I’d ever meet…

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Between Yogurt and Milk

Propelled by caffeine and the type of high that only 5 days on the beach in Thailand during Chuseok can inspire, I shoot through the lobby to the elevator entrance area.  The elevator deposits me onto the 12th floor where I scan my finger print and then sign my name on the employee sign in sheet.  I then pass through the double doors leading to the main office area and proceed to my desk to login to the company time management system.  I have now jumped through all of the ridiculous hoops required to prove that I am in the office.  Time to fuck off to Starbucks.  Just kidding.

The espresso machine is warming up, and I’m sitting at my desk.  A tap on my shoulder.  A gloved hand.  I turn around to be greeted by the Yakult ajumma.  Everyone’s favorite middle-aged female yogurt peddler dressed in the iconic beige company colors from head to toe.  Strict uniform and grooming standards adhered to fully, betraying the company’s Japanese origins.  The Yakult ajumma is hustling for accounts in our office, but she has her work cut out for her.  No other yogurt drink peddlers have secured accounts with any of our famously penny pinching staff.  One of my co-workers is so stingy, he actually washes disposable paper cups and reuses them.

The yogurt drink racket is a tough one.  You either score accounts, or you starve.  It’s all about leads.  Gotta get those leads.  Someone on the inside, probably for a commission, has tipped off the Yakult ajumma to our office’s yogurt drink supply chain deficiency.  In a typical Korean office, the Yakult ajumma will have several clients to visit on her morning yogurt drink runs.  She’ll collect a daily or weekly fee, while supplying nutrition in the form of liquefied yogurt in a small plastic drinking container.  Korean-American colleague Lee never gets tired of telling the same lame yogurt joke every time he sees the Yakult ajumma.  “Hey Jake, what’s the difference between a K-pop boy group, and a yogurt?”  errrrr  “There’s less fruit in the yogurt!”  I’m pretty sure that when the boss forced everyone to go through a sexual harassment seminar, the woman from the bar association mentioned something about gay jokes, and how they could lead to lawsuits, or something.  I’m also fairly sure that Lee was too busy mentally undressing the presenter to actually hear anything she said.

Men in Korea live with their mothers until they get married, at which time they are handed off to wives who take over some of the nagging responsibilities, but none of the mothering responsibilities, leaving many an ajeossi with feelings of profound emptiness. The maternal teet is tucked back into the waist band, no longer available for suckling.  She doesn’t wash my clothes the way mommy did, and her rice doesn’t taste as good.  The other day she actually ordered delivery food instead of cooking me a hot meal.  Along comes a child, and suddenly an ajeossi is no longer even getting the proper nutrition he needs to survive his grueling office routine.  The kid gets all the attention; ajeossi is just there to smile stupidly and underwrite the purchase of designer goods and expensive after-school academies.  As the months pass by, bit by bit, he hardens into a brittle shell of a human being, but wait…..

This is where the Yakult ajumma comes in.  A touch of mothering, a bit of nutrition, and some friendly chit-chat.  She asks me how my day was, and worries about my health!  When was the last time my wife and kid even looked up at me when I sat down at the dinner table?  My wife sleeps 16 hours a day, and spends the other 8 hours glued to home shopping TV channels or her smartphone!   

The Yakult ajumma, heaven-sent, pops a little plastic straw through the foil top of a tiny yogurt drinking bottle, and with it she nurses a grown man back to life with 12 types of vitamins and minerals.  Mission accomplished, she mounts her motorized icebox and glides down the sidewalk out of sight, swallowed by the rolling steel and concrete metropolis until she reappears tomorrow at the same time to deliver nutrition and collect envelopes of cash.

The only question I have is how did this woman get past security, the front desk fingerprint scanner, and the employees-only locked double doors?  Is security so lax that they’ll let anyone into the office?  Just last June building security was read the riot act for letting a senile gentleman carrying pineapples and a giant machete into the building to sell pineapple slices.  His strategy was to stand next to employees and whack the pineapple with his machete until the terrified victim offered to buy a slice.  Safety first!  Did anyone do their job and ID the Yakult ajumma at the front desk?  Who decides which peddlers to let in, and which to turn away?  I suppose part of the Yakult master plan all along was to hire a female-only staff of yogurt peddlers precisely because they have the ability to breeze past building security.  No matter in our case though.  If the Yakult ajumma were a man carrying a large machete and talking to himself, the dumb-shit security guards on the first floor would probably wave him on up, and the front desk girls would then smile and buzz him in the front door.

joomaz

In my eyes I done seen some crazy thangs in the streets. Gotta couple ‘joomaz workin’ on the track just for me. But I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night.. Takin’ money from these bitches, yeah I know that ain’t right.

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A Man’s Breakfast

Most people live not for the routine itself, but for the small interruptions that break the monotony of the routine.  The coffee corner hidden between a cheap partition and an antiquated workhorse copy machine serves as a morning beacon of hope for our company’s foreign staff, a sort of refuge. We congregate and exchange fragmented bits of information as the hydraulic pump inside the Italian espresso machine wakes up and pumps water through the heater coils in a loop until it reaches the correct espresso temperature.  Nobody is truly awake yet.  We need stimulation.  It is during this time that the foreign staff talk serious business.

“English muffin with butter, yogurt” says one waegook colleague. “Not bad” mutters someone else. “Scrambled eggs, one slice of toast, and a black coffee” I say. More nods of approval. “Seaweed soup, leftover fish cake, rice, something red, and something green that looked like grass.” says editor Mike, newly married to a Korean wife with whom he communicates solely in Korean. Looks of sympathy from the group, but Mike grins. He’s satisfied with living an entirely local lifestyle, eating and drinking as the locals do. Good for him. The steel Italian giant produces it’s first shot of espresso. “A cold croissant and a carton of milk” says the company Frenchman. Lee, the gyopo from the Sales Department downs the espresso shot. “C’mon Smith, spit it out. What did you have for breakfast today?” Smith, also an editor, also married to a Korean, hesitates before answering. I see two other waegook colleagues literally rubbing their hands together and licking their chops with anticipation. “Two eggs Benedict with smoked ham. A side of Canadian bacon. One home-made waffle with Crown maple syrup, powdered sugar and blue berries. Small dish of Greek yogurt with diced nuts and slices of banana and strawberry. One circular hashbrown, handmade. A glass of Thai orange juice, and a milk.”

“Fuck off Smith!” Lee from sales crushes his paper coffee cup and slams it into the trash can. Cries of jealousy and injustice erupt from the circle as the machine continues to whir, sputter and grind. Smith’s Korean wife is a professional chef, previously employed with some of the best hotels in Europe and Singapore and now five months pregnant with nobody to cook for but Smith. His morning breakfast stories are almost pornographic fantasies to those of us who have been on the peninsula for years, and are the primary reason we all gather around the espresso machine at the same time each morning while the Korean staff stare with suspicion.  Are they plotting against us?  Engaging in vulgar, sexist western male gossip?  Plotting to undermine the big boss?

As Smith describes a breakfast dish, desperate long-term expat colleagues will prod him for details. “What did she do next, Smith? Did she use cheese? Like, real cheese?” Or “What did the omelet look like Smith? Give me details, I want details!“, all while licking their chops and rubbing their hands together like the hungry wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. I have to wonder about some of these guys’ lives. Has it really been that long since they saw a proper omelet or a home-made waffle? I’ll admit that sometimes as I am driving to work or taking the subway, I actually wonder what Smith’s wife cooked for breakfast that day. Was it something spectacular? How does it compare to what I ate?  How was the dish laid out and where did she get all of the ingredients? Though I have never met Smith’s wife, I sometimes actually dream of Smith’s wife’s cooking as I commute to work. A man’s breakfast can largely determine how the pre-lunch bit of his day will unfold. People who eat what Smith eats for breakfast can’t possibly feel depressed on Monday mornings. If Smith were flat broke, he’d probably still be happy. Even Lee, the Korean-American married to an American girl does not eat this well, Cornflakes being his primary morning staple.

I used to ask my Korean colleagues what they ate for breakfast. They’d always look at me like I was a moron for asking such a stupid question. I later came to realize that their answer would either be (A) seaweed soup and rice, or (B) nothing. Indeed, it was stupid to ask them the same question every day and expect to get a different answer. Perhaps I want hoping they’d surprise me. I get the feeling that some men have been eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years or possibly decades.  There is no breakfast culture in Korea, as you might expect from a place where people prefer to photograph food to actually sitting down and savoring it.  For the unemployed, there is a kind of faux-brunch Itaewon ‘culture’, but it’s just not the same.  The typical Korean breakfast is cheap, plain and simple, mostly consisting of whatever side dishes the family didn’t eat the previous night.  A man could potentially eat for breakfast exactly what he ate for dinner the previous night.  Excellent for cost-cutting, but painfully boring to think about.

The espresso machine reaches steady operating temperature and the smell of coffee permeates the office. I think the espresso machine cost more than the copy machine sitting next to it, but good coffee, like a good breakfast, is essential. Once you start skipping breakfast and drinking Maxim instant coffee, there’s no turning back. There are those who refuse to compromise when it comes to certain things, and there are those who drink Maxim coffee and smoke the cheapest cigarettes. Then there are those like Smith, who smile because they know they’ve got a good thing and won’t ever let it go.

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