Dear Korea Herald: Are You Serious?

blog_plasticprofessorTwo score and ten years ago, the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, addressed a crowd on the steps of the Lincoln memorial about a dream he had. It went on for a bit, but the gist of it was that America would one day be purged of the unholy injustice of racial bigotry. At the time, this was a project of such magnitude that no one would gainsay the scope or highmindedness of his aspirations. Were he to make that same speech today, however, he might find his audience slightly less sympathetic. ‘That’s all well and good for the American Negro,’ they might say, ‘but what about the plight of Korean journalists travelling business class with Lufthansa?’

Dr King would have to concede that the question was a fair one. He might have been willing to put his rhetoric to work for his own people, but his record on speaking up for Korean journalists was patchy at best. Fortunately, there is one lone voice in the wilderness who is willing to speak whereof Dr King dared not. The name of this great liberator? Kim Ji-hyun. That handle might not ring out, but it soon will. And history will remember this great firebrand’s ‘I Have a Dream’ moment as the day on which Kim declared that enough was enough, rolled up her sleeves and penned a meandering, contradictory, self-serving and ignorant newspaper column. The column in question was entitled ‘Dear Lufthansa, are you racist?‘, but for all its passion and righteous fury, it might better have been called, ‘I.. Dream-euh… Have…. Also. Same.’.

If you haven’t yet read Kim’s groundbreaking column, click the link above and do so now. The rest of us will wait for you here. There’s no hurry – savour every phrase, luxuriate in every caesura, let it linger in your consciousness like the rare white truffle that it is. It is a masterpiece of the leader writer’s art. Kim wrongfoots the audience from the second she leaves the gate. Those of us more used to the typical rhetorical tricks of seasoned orators might take the title question to be posed in apostrophe and would not expect it to be answered. Kim, however, pulls the rug from under us with her first line: Are Lufthansa racist? “Probably not.” BOOM. As we stagger backwards punchdrunk, our assumptions left in tatters, she introduces her topic, knowing full well that we now dare not take its ostensible idiocy at face value. What is it that has introduced sand into her pudendum? She’ll tell you: The shoddy treatment received by a group of journalists when they flew with the German national airline.

She deftly unpacks their tale: A crack team of reporters are returning from an assignment in Germany. Despite being in a profession that is defined by the ability to interpret complex data and make sense of it for others, none of these journalists are able to accurately discern the boarding time from the departure time on their boarding pass and they fail to make it to the gate in a timely manner. Even though they were business class passengers, the plane leaves without them, and they had to take another flight on the following day. Readers, rend your garments and gnash your teeth!

The less sympathetic among you might, however, think that these journalists are nothing short of fucktards who deserved everything they got, and would probably hope that they were forced to spend the night sleeping fitfully (or, better, not at all) on a cold airport floor. However, let the scales fall from your eyes and you will perceive not the self-imposed misfortune of a group of drunken peasants who should by rights be stripped of their passports and sent back to the cabbage fields lest they continue to disgrace the rest of the Korean people, but unbridled racial antipathy in its purest and most malevolent form.

How so? As Kim explains, the Lufthansa staff seeing to the comforts of their passengers in the businesss lounge likely let their judgement be clouded by the fact that this group of Koreans were “boisterous” and “less-than-attractive”. True, anyone not raised by wolves tends to find the airport behaviour of Koreans-of-a-certain-age-and-class pretty disgraceful – the shouting, the snorting, the tendency to treat the entire departure lounge like their own personal dive bar – and Lufthansa reps used to dealing with a better class of traveller might well have felt the warmth of their hospitality pale closer to professional obligation. But Kim makes it clear for us that it went further than that: They deliberately kept the group from making their flight by failing to inform them of its impending departure, and what’s more, scolded them for not observing the schedule. Kim doesn’t go into detail, but they probably also failed to wipe their arses for them when they went for a shit. It would hardly surprise.

And so what would at first blush appear to be an open and shut case of ajeossis behaving like louts is transformed by Kim’s retelling into a tale of humble Korean businessmen pitted against the steely ruthlessness of Aryan Übermenschen. Such is the skill of a powerful writer: they do not seek to alter the facts, but the position from which one views the facts. Anyone used to flying in the company of Koreans would be all too ready to credit these journalists’ troubles to their own propensity for generating bad will. Whether it’s from turning the departure gate into a pigpen, speaking down to airline staff, drinking themselves into a coma, or generally behaving as if the purchasing of a flight ticket instantly renders one some sort of fucking celebrity, it’s never too difficult to connect Korean travellers and a generalized and well justified sense of ill will. But hear Kim’s vague and specious leader and you will see the world anew: It was not the journalists that were wrong, but circumstance itself – the vile mix of malice, disgust and jealousy that once again yoked a Korean to the role of victim. Now it all seems so clear: It is never the Korean that is out of step with the world, but the world that is out of step with the Korean.

Few would have the mettle to stand against this injustice. Indeed, such men come but once in a generation. The Reverend Dr King’s torch has been passed, and the world has no choice but to stop and listen. The voice that they hear is rough with righteous indignation. It is speaks with the passion of a million angry souls. It burns with the fury of the too-long-downtrodden. True, it may lack the rhetorical flourish of other leaders – in fact, it might not make very much sense at all – but nevertheless, its message is clear – “PLEASE UNDERSTAND OUR SPECIAL SITUATION.”

Take note, world: Kim Ji-hyun also has a dream. It is a nonsensical, whiney, rambling sort of dream, but it is dream nonetheless. Kim has a dream that one day, groups of Korean journalists will be able to make as much noise and drink as much free scotch as they like in airport business lounges and be untroubled by the need to follow very basic instructions or behave in anything like a professional manner. She has a dream that one day Koreans will be judged not by the colour of their skin, or by the content of their character, but by the fact that they are older than you are. Further, she has a dream that whenever Korean travellers are inconvenienved entirely as a result of their own stupdity, they get to blame everyone but themselves, and display such a lack of self-awareness that they see no shame in writing a peevish, petty and inept column about it in a national newspaper.

Kim Ji-hyun cannot be ignored. She is the coarse, stupid, arrogant voice of a generation.

Posted in Korea's Worst Newspaper, Racism!, Reading the Newspaper on the Subway, The Plastic Professor | 73 Comments

The Reincarnation Lottery

The moon is up and the temperature is down on this bitter cold Korean winter morning.  Our balls are tucked high and puffs of steam emerge intermittently from our noses and mouths.  Ratty frozen fur-dreadlocks hang from our bellies as we sit in our cages awaiting death or salvation.  There’s no quick and easy way out for a dog on a Korean dog farm.  As the dog farmer opens his cabin door, hangs a lantern on a wrought iron hook and slips into his knee-high rubber boots, the four of us make eye contact.

We are weak rickety-kneed heaving bags of bone in the sub-zero Korean winter, but we know a last chance when we smell one; and the sloshing sound of the dog farmer’s feet as he approaches is our last chance.  He’s got an electric prod and a large wooden broom handle.  He’ll get some of us, and then the rest of us will get him.  Richie and Sean on my left and Chris on my right; nostrils flared and ears back, 10,000 years of primal instinct combined with an immediate need rally the four of us together as the dog farmer approaches our cages.

It wasn’t always like this.  Decades ago the four of us arrived on the Korean peninsula as English teachers, looking for adventure and a new start.  None of us were perfect.  There were some fights, some incidents with local women, some cultural misunderstandings and a bit of jail time here and there.  Karma is a bitch and reincarnation found us starting over and starting lower.  Richie and Sean and Chris and I were in a taxi going from Gangnam to Hannam-dong late one Saturday night when we met our end.  I’d always told myself that I’d never employ the services of a Korean taxi driver.  They were reckless, dangerous, extremely careless and often times drunk.  It was Chris who talked everyone into sharing a taxi that night.  Chris, who had come to Korea with $15 in his pocket and a single carry-on bag after deciding that being a security guard at Walmart wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Chris who had married the ugliest, meanest Korean woman any of us had ever met; a woman whose parents were so delighted that anyone would even consider marrying their pig-of-a-daughter, that they’d bestowed upon Chris a generous dowry, a new apartment, a new car and a monthly allowance.  Chris never complained about any of the daily non-sense he encountered in Korea, because for Chris, life in Korea represented an upgrade beyond his wildest dreams.  And against all odds, it was Chris with whom this big, fat, greasy, stupid, incredibly ugly woman had conceived a child.  Seeing Chris and his pregnant beast of a wife made you feel like Darwin in the Galapagos Islands trying to figure out the mysteries of iguanas and tortoises and prehistoric, irrational, thoughtless breeding.  It was simply beyond a 100 beer loss-of-control scenario that any man would want to see this woman without clothing.  Forget intercourse.  Just seeing her naked would make your male bits disappear into the safe nether regions of your groin.  But against all odds, 9 months later, there was the baby.

Chris’s wife told him that he couldn’t take the car out that night.  Was she using it?  No.  She just didn’t want him to use it.  The three of us often wondered if Chris would ever plea-bargain a temporary pair of testicles and step up to be a man for one brief, shining moment in his miserable life, but things don’t work that way when you are a useless prick and your wife and her family control the purse strings.  So, taxi it was.  I accepted death when my hand touched the metal door handle of the taxi and a cold chill ran down my spine.  As the driver sped through yet another red light and the semi truck hit us, and we began to roll over and over, I didn’t feel any pain.  A high speed impact and roll-over, four passengers with no seat-belts.  Everything went silent and I slid into a soothing warmness.  Waves of tranquility and the sensation of drifting.  Death isn’t so bad when it comes quickly.

The four of us are still mammals who howl in the night, and dream about sex, and value togetherness, and remember the past; but we are now dogs. Four large dogs in the lonely cold mountains and valleys of the Korean countryside.

We may be dogs, but we are dogs with memories.  Memories of where we came from.  Memories of hot summer days, clear blue skies, people smiling, people laughing, wind slicing through large trees with leaves whisking and shimmering in the sun like waves washing over a million shiny round stones.  We are four dogs with memories of home, and somehow, we are all going back.  This is what we wail about during the pitch black nights and all we dream about during the hazy grey days.  This is why it is so important to throw every last bit of energy and fast twitch muscle fiber into our plan, and not to waver, and to get to the dog farmer’s throat before he can spin around and squeeze the handle of his electric prod.  Those of us who escape will get to keep our dream alive.  The dream of going back home.  The dream of escaping from this peninsula once and for all.

As the farmer unlatches the cage door, I sink my teeth into his arm and continue to bite down until I feel the bone crunch.  Warm blood.  The dog farmer’s wife hears nothing as he flails and reaches for his stick while Richie bounds up and locks his jaw around the farmer’s throat, twisting from side to side.  The last thing the farmer felt was the blunt impact of two powerful jindo front paws knocking him to the ground as he thought to himself  “Oh god! Not the ground.  I can’t let them get me on the ground.  Once I’m on the ground, it’s over!”  Death is quick and the four of us gorge ourselves.  First the flesh and then the blood and then the meat and finally the bones.  We’ll need all of the protein and energy we can get.  It’s a long way to the port of Busan, and the slow boat to Japan.

The iron taste of the farmer’s blood remains in our mouths as we bound up and down hills and valleys and ice-covered fields on our way south towards the port of Busan.  We are dehydrated, and skinny, and desperate, but at least we are not hungry anymore. We are all pieces of the same past and all dreaming of the same future.  We are four half-dead dogs now pressing flank to flank, diamond pattern formation, panting and gasping and wheezing as we slice through the bushes and snow towards Busan; to the port, to waiting ships and freedom.

Animals aren’t much different from you.  They may be dreaming the same dream. The dream of going back home. The karmatic reincarnation spiral can carry you up or down and there are no guarantees. The concept of reincarnation is simple like that.  All you ever know is where you are, and where you want to be, and what you have to do. The shiny cosmic thread of dream and consciousness that connects every man and mammal regardless of their hierarchy in the reincarnation lottery.

“I want to go home, take me home”

So be nice to every animal you meet because you may meet them reincarnated again.

–”Hello sir, do you know bibimbap?  Do you know kimchi?”

“Yes, I do.”

–”Say–you look familiar to me.”

“I should–I’m the last dog you saw before you collapsed and bled out in the snow.”

Posted in The Expat | 15 Comments

Contemporary Urban Anthropology in Korean Restrooms (NSFW)

For those of you debating the merits of an additional lung full of air, I have excellent news.  Step down from the balcony railing; it’s too soon to jump.  I am currently working on a book.  A hard cover photographic collage entitled “Korean Lavatory:  Modern Impressions (2012-2013)”.  This 365 page coffee table monster contains photographs of little or no documentary or artistic merit, but which instead portray the daily lives of ordinary citizens by capturing in photographs the aftermath of their most intimate moments.  Pre-production run individual copies have already been printed to serve the clamoring celebrity book review market and world leaders and church leaders and those highbrow name-droppers at the New York Times Book Review. My agents are already setting up talk show, and internet, and radio interviews.  Ordering information for this book will follow on a need-to-know basis. What I can tell you now is that this will be a limited edition heirloom publishing project with each book individually numbered, accompanied by a holographic Certificate of Authenticity, autographed by me, and accompanied by an 8×10 glossy photograph of me in a purple swimsuit, coconut oil rubbed all over my glistening muscles, riding a horse on the beach in Jeju-do.  Look forward to adding this piece of artistic literary history to your investment portfolio.

Anyway: there will be three book categories–the Standard, the Legacy, and the Friend of Jake.

1. The Standard edition will be published, printed and bound using the highest quality materials, design and construction. The price per book will be $196.00 each (USD only, no KRW). Shipping to western countries will be approximately $67.86: shipping within Korea will be $33.43 via quick-service motorbike.

2. The Legacy category editions will be leather bound with diamond studded embossed letters in elephant ivory and gold. They will be printed on calfskin parchment with vellum separators between the pages. These literary additions to your investment portfolio will be delivered by a parachuting Gangnam room salon whore in an electric purple vinyl microskirt trailing pink smoke bombs. She will be guaranteed to be brainless and full of silicone add-ons. The book will retail for $6548.00. No discounts available for multiple orders, and only one parachuting whore per order. And if you damage the electric purple vinyl dress you are paying for it. Come on guys, don’t act like animals.

3. The FOJ (Friend of Jake) edition of the book will be identical to the Heirloom edition except in place of a parachuting room salon whore–I will be delivering the book. I will knock on your door, I will introduce myself, I will hand you the book, I will make eye contact, I will shake your hand, I will autograph the book, I will pose for pictures with your miserable family, and I will smile. You will become an FOJ (Friend of Jake). Cost per book: $73,251. No I will not have sex with you. Wait a minute . . . . ok, no I will not have sex with you. And no I will not be wearing an electric purple short vinyl microskirt. Wait a minute . . . ok, not sure about that. Anyway, come on guys; let’s be serious. This is all about writing. You wouldn’t ask Shakespeare to have sex with you, would you?

My second photo book project, due out in early 2015 is entitled “No Means Yes”, and features 365 pages of photographs taken in rooms of love motels in which the occupants have recently checked out.  The used baby condoms, the blood, the sticky tissues and the rumpled and crumpled sheets tell the love stories of ordinary citizens through the eyes of a love motel cleaning lady.

As a service to my reader, I have included seven pages of “Korean Lavatory:  Modern Impressions (2012-2013)” below with bonus commentary not available in the book.  The entire featured week (December 4th through December 10th)  was shot in a single communal restroom located in a modern Korean office building in Seoul.  The photographs are taken in the men’s restroom exclusively.  My wife’s friend’s husband who is a Korean police officer told me that taking pictures in the women’s restroom could be considered a “crime” but that men are offered no such protection in the men’s restroom.  Double standards.

For the entire seven days spanning December 4th to December 10th, my colleague and I ventured back to the same two stalls in the same office building restroom, giddy with anticipation.  What would we find today?  Would it be something special?  Something creative?  Something artistic?  What would the residents, employees and occupants of this building teach us about their characters and personalities?  Let’s find out as the photojournalistic anthropological journey unfolds:

dec_4th_Korean_restroom_photobook

On December 4th we discovered a red liquid mess in stall number 3 of the building’s public restroom.  This discovery was somewhat disappointing as the evidence in the nearby used-toilet-paper disposal bucket took any potential guess work out of the blood-red contents of the toilet bowl.  It should be noted that instead of flushing used toilet paper, the Koreans prefer to discard it into a waste basket where it piles up until someone, usually an economically disadvantaged and/or old person, comes and cleans the waste basket.  What we have here is a case of “Ramen Blowout”, which is common when a person quickly consumes spicy ramen on an empty stomach and the chemical/MSG combination fight their way through the intestinal tract like prunes through an old lady.  The resulting “blowout” looks very much the same as what was originally consumed.  The discarded bowl is a locally branded “Nongshim Shin Ramyeon” with the Han character “辛”, meaning “fiery” on the bowl.  The aftermath at the scene does beg several questions, the most intriguing of which is ‘Did the man consume the ramyeon while simultaneously defecating?’  Did he throw the ramyeon bowl into the used toilet paper basket as a form of protest?  Was the failure to flush, combined with the discarded bowl of ramyeon intended to be a type of warning for would-be consumers of Nongshim’s trademark spicy ramyeon?  Or perhaps the perpetrator simply poured the ramen directly into the toilet, because it was too repulsive to eat?

dec_5th_Korean_restroom_photobook

On December 5th, we entered the restroom with great anticipation.  The Ramen Blowout in stall number 3 had been cleaned during the previous night.  In stall number 2, we were greeted with what appeared to be the entire stomach contents of a grown man.  Long term residents of Korea will immediately spot something amiss in this photo, as the tell-tale pink or red tint of spicy local fare is missing entirely from this particular pile of vomit.  The vomit is a grainy beige with pieces of rice and some darker wedges that could be some type of vegetable or fish, but are not easily identifiable.  The only clue in the used-toilet-paper basket is a newspaper, which appears unrelated to the pile of vomit.  As the previous day’s ‘ramen blowout’ was likely cleaned around 11pm, one can only assume that the pile of vomit in stall number 2 appeared at some point in the night after 11pm.  The fact that the individual managed to make his way into a restroom at all hints that the owner of this pile of vomit possesses at least some modicum of shame, as many people simply choose to vomit directly onto the street/sidewalk or in public places as opposed to locating the nearest restroom.

We are however puzzled by the fact that the individual in question failed to lift the toilet seat.  Perhaps he did not want to get his hands dirty?  Perhaps he was overcome with emotion?  Perhaps this was an act of revenge perpetrated against the 80 year old grandmother tasked with cleaning the restrooms in this building?  It’s all speculation at this point.  If you had the option to vomit (1) in the toilet bowl, (2) in the used-toilet-paper bucket, (3) on the floor or (4) directly onto the closed lid of the toilet, which would you choose?  What would Jesus do?  Note the angle of the pipe and flusher, the use of fiberglass resin to seal the stainless steel piping to the porcelain bowl, and the looks-like-it-was-made-with-a-sledgehammer hole in the wall.

dec_6th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 6th brings us back to stall number 2 where the vomit has now been cleaned and the age-old question of “If you dropped something in the toilet, would you fish it out?” has been answered for us.  At first, this scene had us scratching our heads, but we quickly deduced the events leading up to the scene portrayed in the above picture.  From what we gather, the owner of the slippers defecated in the toilet of stall number 2, and then, not wanting to touch the flush lever with their hands, attempted to perform the flushing operation with their foot.  Unfortunately things did not go as planned and the slipper ‘slipped’ off and landed in the toilet.  The only thing more awkward than a man with no slippers is a man with a single slipper, limping back to the office.  Hence, the second slipper was left abandoned in its place and the owner returned to the office minus both slippers.  The 80 year old woman who cleans the restroom will at least have some type of usable souvenir left over from today’s activities.

dec_7th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 7th has my colleague and I reporting back to stall number 2, where most of the action has been occurring in this three-stall restroom in Seoul.  Today, all hell appears to have broken loose and my colleague and I jump back after swinging open the stall door.  Could this actually be happening?  There are so many things going on that determining the chronological order of events is nearly impossible.  First of all, though hardly visible in the pictures, there are shoe/slipper prints on the toilet seat facing outwards towards the door at a 45 degree angle.  The perpetrator of today’s display chose to perch on the toilet seat and squat as opposed to sitting on it, which considering the previous days findings, might have actually been the best thing to do.  The perpetrator’s trajectory, however, was all wrong and it looks as though they hit the lid with some light liquid fecal spray before readjusting their footing and hitting the seat with some more solid fecal spray.  No attempt was made to clean the resulting spray, and uniquely, the perpetrator has abandoned Korean tradition and has discarded the toilet tissue directly into the toilet bowl, again failing to flush.  The red fluid is either ramen blowback, or blood from a ripped intestinal wall.  It appears that the offender did try to clean some of the red liquid from the right side of the toilet, but whatever effort was applied towards that endeavor was minimal, leaving us with the chaotic scene above.  Sweet Mary Mother of Joesph, my colleague and I are not religious men, but after December 7th, we both burned our clothes and bathed in holy water at a local church.

dec_8th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 8th catches my colleague and I off guard as we had prepared for the worst, the events of December 7th still fresh in our minds.  Surprisingly, the disaster from December 7th has been completely cleaned up and we are pleasantly surprised to find the water in the toilet bowl to be clear.  On December 8th, we are greeted with another familiar Korean tradition; dribble spitting.  Dribble spitting is something that Korean males seem to learn in either middle school grade 3, or high school grade 1.  Dribble spitting often goes hand in hand with smoking cigarettes.  The culprit will typically squat close to the ground and smoke.  Between drags, they will dribble spit from their mouths and onto the floor until they’ve created a pool of spit.  Our dribble spitting friend, perhaps due to the cold weather, has violated the building’s ‘No Smoking’ policy and partaken in this favorite past time in stall number 2 of this building’s restroom.  My colleague and I are mystified at the two large puddles of spittle, with but a single cigarette butt in the toilet (again, no flush).  Two large puddles of spittle would usually require about 10-15 minutes of smoke-spitting, however we were only able to locate a single cigarette butt in the entire stall.  Perhaps the perpetrator prefers spitting to smoking as opposed to giving each of his hobbies equal time.  My colleague postulates that the offender was engaged in a phone call while smoke-spitting, and thus he had more time for spitting and less time for smoking.

dec_9th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 8th, and we are back in stall number 2 which has become somewhat of a reliable old favorite for us.  Today we have what appears to be a backed up toilet.  Legend has it that the low water pressure and relatively narrow nature of Korean sewer pipes means that Korean toilets are incapable of dispensing with soggy toilet tissue.  This is why you will typically find a used toilet tissue waste basket next to most Korean public toilet bowls.  The mystery, however, is how toilets inside 20 year old apartments somehow seem to have the flushing power to dispense with toilet paper, as do toilets in nearly every single hotel and motel, while toilets in relatively new office buildings do not seem to have this same flushing ‘power’.  Good examples would be the Grand Hyatt, JW Marriott, Sheraton Hotel, Ritz Carlton, Best Western, W Hotel, 7 Luck Casino etc, none of which have used toilet tissue waste baskets in any of their restrooms.  The only logical assumption is that these places must have their own individual water treatment and sewage systems, built to international standards.  But what of the people living in 20 year old apartments?  Do they also pile used toilet tissue into buckets, and then dispose of it with the rest of the household garbage?  Speaking of which, today we also find a small bag of trash that has been discarded in the used toilet tissue bucket.  This is a big no-no in Korea, and is the primary reason you do not see any public trash cans anywhere outside of subway stations.  Back when Korea had public trash cans, residents would take the trash from their apartments and dispose of it in the public trash cans at night time.  They did this to avoid paying for the color-coded trash bags required by the government.  The next day, you’d find overflowing trash cans lining the streets and subsequently piles of trash would form on sidewalks, creating a perfect place for rats to burrow and multiply.  Hence, no more public trash cans in Korea.

dec_10th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 10th, and we’ve completed our entire week of observations in this particular restroom.  Today’s findings are another empty ramen bowl in the used toilet tissue bin, and a bag of potato chips discarded directly into the toilet bowl.  Again, the lack of public trash cans in Korea results in trash being secreted in various creative places.  The fact that this individual chose to discard the chips directly into the toilet instead of the used toilet paper bin is perhaps a form of social protest.  One of my Korean friends once told me that middle aged men in Korea often act rudely in public as a way of expressing their frustration with being socially ostracized.  Their children dislike them, their wives only need them initially for sperm, and later for money, and once they hit 50 years old, they can look forward to being laid off from their jobs early and desperately searching for employment at any number of low-paying, degrading jobs.  Perhaps littering is kind of symbolic.  Or perhaps, this person was simply eating a bag of chips as they defecated, and once they finished and flushed, they deposited the empty bag into the toilet bowl.  Eating in the restroom is strangely common and puzzling at the same time.

dec_11th_Korean_restroom_photobook

December 11th was an interesting bonus, as we encountered some vomit in the lobby waiting area of the building.  This vomit contains the trademark spicy red coloring of local food, and someone has been kind enough to try to wipe some of it up with a newspaper.  We found more piles of vomit outside.  Outside of this building is a Shinhan bank, where every morning, approximately 5-7 piles of fresh vomit can be found.  Every morning at around 7am, an old man, probably the building manager, comes out with a large bag of light colored sand, and deposits sand on top of the fresh vomit piles.  I assume he does this because bank customers have complained.  Or perhaps he does it to keep the pigeons away, as pigeons are attracted to the vomit piles and Koreans are generally scared of pigeons.  It occurs to me that there is no natural source of light brown sand anywhere near this building, and thus, the building manager probably has to go out and buy this sand or collect it from somewhere.  Perhaps there is an entire industry built around the covering up of vomit piles in Seoul.  Perhaps there is a kind of warehouse where they sell shovels, and fresh sand, and burlap bags to building managers all over the city to manage the near ceaseless piles of vomit that would otherwise cover every sidewalk and street of the city.  I’ve also seen the Shinhan building manager use the sand to cover up the area on the outer wall of the bank where taxi drivers urinate day and night.  I assume that this is to get rid of the smell, which no doubt offends early morning customers.  Seoul is a city of a million stories.  The people who battle to keep the city clean are fighting a fierce battle, and are outnumbered greatly by people whose sole quest in life seems to be to bury the city in as much human waste and trash as possible.

Available soon from Amazon.com and Blurb:

book

Posted in Cultural Commentaries, Life in Korea, Please understanduh my unique culture, The Expat | 18 Comments

Choices, Power, and Control

The true measure of one’s power is not land or money or physical strength.  The true measure of one’s power is control.  As in, how many people one controls.  You say that you are big and rich and powerful and successful and handsome, and that you can hold a 10 kilo kettle bell 90 degrees straight out from your body with your erect penis?  Big deal hot shot, but how many people do you control?  What’s your name, and how many people do you control?  What is the size of your army?  This is what matters; in terms of power, all else is irrelevant.  My name is Jake, and I control an army of 60 loyal expats, how about you?  That’s what I thought.  Go back to your kindergarten job, your gym and your dick stretching kettle bell exercises.  We’re here to talk about man stuff, expat stuff.  Get out the 21 year old Ballantine’s whiskey and the pipe tobacco.

The 8th Annual Expat Congress is coming up next month and myself along with a committee of 19 other members of the Korean expat jet-set glitterati have been neck deep in paperwork and preparations.  Deciding on a venue poses a major logistical problem.  That any large scale expat meeting would be held in Itaewon was beyond question.  But which specific venue would be most appropriate for a large scale meeting of high profile expat movers and shakers?  Some place foreigner-friendly?  That narrows it down to less than 10 venues.  Some place with no upper age restrictions?  Some of my expat brothers have actually survived beyond their 40th year on this frigid peninsula, despite repeated suicide/escape attempts, so age-hostile places like the Gold Bar (no patrons over 40 allowed) are out of the question.

And then we have to consider which places my various friends have been banned from, which is an extra consideration that only people among my particular social group seem to have to address.  You say you’ve been banned from Dave’s ESL café?  Banned from KoreaBang?  Big fucking deal.  Anyone with a room temperature IQ and two brain cells to rub together has been long banned from both of these places.  I have friends who have been physically banned for life from actual brick and mortar businesses in Itaewon.  I actually have to sit and make a list of friends names, and a list of Itaewon businesses, and then draw little lines all over the place to figure out who has been banned from where.  Painstaking work.  Expat problems.

I’ve been tasked with drawing up the meeting agenda, creating a list of topics to be discussed and voted upon by the 8th Annual Expat Congress, the representatives of which have been elected via a Kakaotalk polling application accessible to only the ~200 most influential expats on the peninsula, you know, the people who actually matter (No, you can’t join without an invitation, so don’t ask).  Complex issues such as “Who will be the next cultural ambassador to Itaewon?” will be addressed. I held the position myself for two years, as did my consigliere Johnny Drama.  Who will be next?  Big shoes to fill, lots of hands to shake, lots of people to meet.  Who possesses the required social skills?  Hushed whispers in the jimjilbang hint that someone whose name starts with “S” could be next, but these rumors are unconfirmed.

Next up for discussion is the re-design of the Expat Hell© official name cards and stickers.  People always email me asking how they can join the members-only message board on this site.  Basically, it works in the same way that Korean actresses and models get hired, except you don’t have to put anyone’s penis in your mouth.  You see, new recruits are scouted in person, on the mean streets of Itaewon, Seoul, Gyeonggi-do and as far away as Wonju and Busan.  The signature Expat Hell business card is handed over to individuals who have qualified for admission into our gentleman’s social club.  The boss (me) hands a stack of cards to his underboss, who in turn distributes them to his caporegimes, who in turn pass them on to their soldiers who go out on the streets and into expat friendly places in search of new associates.  It’s all rather complicated.  Think of it as receiving Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.  You don’t choose membership, the membership chooses you.

Additional topics for discussion are the renovation of the Expat Hell© World Headquarters on the 6th floor of the Hamilton hotel (room 602).  The room has been handed down from expat to expat over the generations, and frankly is in dire need of a full restoration lest anyone’s mistress complain of roaches or cigarette smoke or plastic bags full of long-used condoms.  Which shady contractor will be used for the renovations, or will we simply renovate it ourselves?  Tough decision.  It will all come down to a vote.

The Expat Hell© Senior Expat Pension System will also be revised. It would seem that some of our expat brothers aged beyond 40 have run into hard times on the job market.  The Koreans ain’t hirin’ senior citizens, and once you reach age 40, you are basically a senior citizen in Korea.  We younger expats will pay into the pension system to support the older expats who are no longer able to secure full time employment, or pay the legal bills from their 3rd divorce, etc.  Expats helping expats, a strange concept alien to most foreigners in Korea.

The Hooker Hill Relocation Charity Dinner is also in the works, and will be hosted at a well known Italian bistro with actual Italians in the kitchen.  The per-plate donation is still being worked out, with all proceeds going towards the relocation of all of the comfort women prostitutes who will soon be homeless as Itaewon’s Hooker Hill is redeveloped into tourist hotels and bibimbap restaurants.  Social responsibility; helping the community.

A vote will be held on which business venture will next be absorbed by the Expat Hell© Hedge Fund.  The coffers are bursting at the seams and the Expat Hell© portfolio is ripe for another acquisition, but what?  Will it be a print shop?  A bar or pub?  A cocktail lounge?  A deaf/mute souvenir cart?  A Thai massage parlor? Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment.  There is a Thai massage place near my office and in the evenings, they have two Thai girls standing next to the door, greeting potential customers.  One of the Thai girls is tall and thin, with hair down to her ass and silver bracelets up to her elbows.  She looks directly at me with electric eyes every time I pass by on my way to get coffee in the evening.  Electric eyes and a seductive smile.  Kryptonite to the working man.  Fuck the coffee; a thousand megawatt smile is all the working man needs to clock in long hours of overtime.

My secretary asks me “Jake, why do you make a funny sound and bite your fist every time we pass by this building?”  “Oh, uhhh, errr…. I’m just trying to warm up my hands.” Riiiiiiight.  I am putting in a strong vote for buying a massage shop.  A very strong vote.  In fact, I’m writing it in big red letters across the top of my ballot, ‘MASSAGE SHOP, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST’.  I have a strong feeling that the Expat Hell© hedge fund will soon be majority shareholder in a massage shop.  Screw the cocktail lounge, screw government bonds, screw investing in oil or gold or Indian wig factories, and screw the fucking deaf/mute souvenir cart.

When you see the electric eyes and the thousand megawatt smile, you know you are in trouble.  Women look at your face as a way of getting information from you.  They are thinking, and the gears in their heads are turning when they look at your face.  Look at any part of a woman other than her face, and she instantly knows that the advantage is hers.  She is in control of you.  She is already dribbling the ball down the field, and you are chasing her.  Chasers can be winners, but they have to start off as losers.  My friends and brothers, are you chasing something?  You are not a winner.  Yet.  The streets are choked with beautiful women.  Are they looking at you with electric eyes?  Are you looking back at any other part of their body besides their face?  Loser.  Good luck.  Me?  I’m chasing my dream of owning a Thai massage parlor.  Eyes on the prize.  And so…..

The pile of papers on my desk looks about ten feet tall, and the empty cups of espresso surrounding my computer monitor are evidence that I have been avoiding sleep and putting in long hours.  My name is Jake, and I control a loyal army of 60 expats.  How about you, Mr. ESL Café?  Mr. kindergarten teacher?  Mr. ‘imported beer is too expensive’?  Are you burning the candle at both ends?  Are you making plans for big things?  No?  Then what are you doing?

Posted in The Expat | 20 Comments

Expat Caesar Salad

Greetings Jake fans, tranny fans, ceiling fans and aimless,  jaded, drifting expats.  A new year is upon us, though for me, the transition from 2013 to 2014 went off with all the muffled excitement of a firecracker that failed to pop.  Depending on how you look at it, this year will be another year of doing the same things that you did last year, or perhaps, it will be the year that you get out of this place.  Well, you know me; I’ll be here forever.  Not because I really want to be here forever, but because I’m too broke, stupid and stuck in my ways to leave.  What I am trying to say is that basically, I am just like you.

So how did I celebrate the new year?  I dined at Geckos in Itaewon.  Again, I am stupid and broke and slowly losing my grasp on reality, and sometimes I even get lost in my own neighborhood.  This is why I so easily return to restaurants that have disappointed me in the past.  This is why I keep going back to Itaewon.  When it comes to Korean food crimes, Geckos is admittedly not very close to the top of the list.  Not by a long, long, long shot, actually.

Geckos has however lost its core customer base of jaded alcoholic expats (we all gather at the Seoul Pub now, btw).  I walk into Geckos and note that I am the only foreigner.  I look around and think for a moment, and mentally confirm to myself that I am actually inside Geckos.  Yes, I am inside Geckos.  Where are the jaded expat drunks?  Perhaps I have arrived too early (it is almost dinner time).  Where is the Scottish guy who always wears a kilt?  Where is the guy who walks around with cigars, asking Korean girls to smell his cigars?  Where are the large Nigerian men doing their best to pretend that they are not Nigerian?  Geckos no longer has the atmosphere of a bar named after an animal.  Anyone who knows anything knows that bars named after animals are always dive-y, dingy places catering to tough men with reptilian eyes and faces marked with deep scars representing quiet personal defeats.  The world is filled with bars like the Cheshire Cat, The Mutt’s Nuts, The Tiger Inn, Bully’s, The Black Lion, The Red Dragon, The Cock and Bull, The Dirty Duck etc.  These are places where men go to drink beer.  Geckos, sadly, may be overdue for a name change.  Might I suggest “Starbucks” as a new name.  Geckos is the new Starbucks, or, it might as well be the new Starbucks, or something.

I glance around the place and suddenly realize that not only am I the only foreign customer, but I am also one of the few men, and I am the only person sitting alone.  I sit at the bar.  On the bar counter is a colorful pamphlet listing a wide array of fruity cocktails.  I notice that the new cocktail pamphlet is larger and more colorful than the previous cocktail pamphlet, which in the past seemed to have been thrown in as more of an afterthought in case some poor, stupid alcoholic expat dragged his wife or girlfriend to the bar for drinks.  I glance around and notice that hardly anyone is drinking beer.  Sweet suffering Christ, this place has gone from being a dodgy military/expat hangout to a bloody pink cocktail bar where nobody speaks English.  Gone is the western pub vibe, where a person could walk up to another person and start a conversation or make a new friend.  Instead, the locals are all paired off into their little islands, doing their best to avoid eye contact or acknowledge anyone around them.

Every once in a while, you will hear the clicking sound of some Korean girl’s smartphone camera nervously firing off another shot of her pink cocktail with a little blue umbrella on the top.  Geckos: The New Starbucks (TM).  I recently read a lengthy paper about how people who take excessive photographs of food and drinks usually do so because they have lost the will or the ability to relate to living things.  They can no longer have a real relationship with a living, breathing entity, and so they spend their spare time snapping off pictures of food because eating is one of the few remaining actions that provides them with any form of satisfaction.  More of the new Itaewon.  Evolve or die.  Why do I keep coming back here?  I suppose you can’t complain about being on stage if you did the walk-on yourself.

Finally two more foreigners enter the bar.  Two white guys.  They sit at the table directly behind me.  One guy hails the waiter and orders a burger.   His partner orders the same burger, but asks the waiter to bring it “without the meat patty”.  He orders a side of mashed potatoes, which he tells his partner he will use in place of the patty.  Christ, vegans in Geckos?  What’s next? Whores with hearts? Army intelligence?  Guys with feelings?  Condoms without holes? Some things just don’t pass the ‘makes sense’ test. Some things just don’t seem right. Some things offend. Some things seem like a blue Bongo van full of spoiled kimchi (wait, that’s another oxymoron). You can’t put a happy face on that, my friends. It just stinks. Vegans in Korea eating potato burgers and riding around on colorful scooters that look like Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle? Give me a giant break.

Hey vegans, I’d love to hear about your ballet tickets and your mother’s photo album full of quilted teddy bear pictures, but right now I’m too busy eating this Caesar salad. Caesar salad? That’s right baby, Caeser salad expat style. Man food. I substituted slabs of tenderloin and chunks of cheese for the greens. The beef comes from steroid injected bulls that were pumping iron in Argentina before being rounded up, prodded, zapped, eviscerated, and slaughtered.  I swapped in beer-soaked chunks of beef jerky for the croutons, and pickled kangaroo tail rendering mixed with BBQ sauce for the dressing.  Salads?  Yeah, Love them.  Expat style.  Man style.

Can you imagine owning one of these former expat hangouts in Itaewon?  Your life would be full of choices.  Most of these choices would probably be unpleasant choices.  Do you want a dead bar full of dying customers, or do you want to turn a profit?  Is it time to add colorful cocktails to the menu?  Your neighbors are turning a profit, and you’ve got a dead bar full of dying customers, heck; some of these old alcoholic expats don’t even buy/ eat food for Christ’s sake!  Some of these guys subside entirely on cigarettes and beer.  One guy I know was recently diagnosed with “starvation” during his annual medical exam.  Reason?  All he ever consumed was alcohol and cigarettes.  You can be a double addict, but you still have to eat food.  Some of these guys are on a virtual IV drip of the flattest, cheapest beer available and their asses are parked in bar stools that are taking up valuable real estate.

Korean and English signs outside of Itaewon's Gold Bar, stating that people over age 40 are now allowed inside.  No Country for Old Men!

Korean and English signs outside of Itaewon’s Gold Bar, stating that people over age 40 are not allowed inside. No Country for Old Men!

So when do you cut the life support?  When do you pull the plug and start offering fruity pink cocktails and soju-bombs on your menu?  When do you decide to re-decorate and buy fancy cocktail glasses and plates because your new customers spend more time photographing their food and drinks than they do actually consuming them?  When do you finally lay off the security guard who has worked the front door for 13 years, because your bar is no longer a ‘dangerous foreigner hangout’ but instead a ‘cute neighborhood cocktail bar’ where security guards are no longer necessary?  When do you drop the requirement of “English fluent” from your Help Wanted ads?

Tough choices, but when it comes to turning a profit, you either close your doors or evolve.  As humans, I suppose we have the same choices; shut down or evolve.  I’ve been here for a long time and I do not feel like I have evolved.  I feel like I’ve actually done the opposite.  How did that happen?

Here's a screen capture of stats, showing how people found this website.  Happy New Year!

Here’s a screen capture of stats, showing how people found this website. Happy New Year!

Posted in Itaewon, The Expat | 29 Comments

Doing it All Wrong

On Being Politically Correct

Recently, it has come to my attention that I have been doing everything all wrong.  I know this because the wise, educated, intellectually stimulating people around me keep telling me so.  Therefore, it must be true.  I have recently been told by a 20-something hipster coworker that swatting people out of the way when I exit an elevator is “rude”.  Same goes for the subway.  Who knew?  I always thought that the people standing directly in front of elevator and subway doors wanted to be swatted out of the way, and that is why they stood directly in front of such doors.  They want human contact:  they want to be swatted.  My enlightened coworker also told me that using an umbrella as a swatting implement is equally “rude”.  Again, who knew?

Puzzled, I asked some wise and modest Koreans about this situation where people stand in front of elevator and subway doors without the expectation of the exiting passengers swatting them out of the way. The Koreans tell me that this behavior (standing in front of doors aimlessly) only happens in “poor, shantytown” areas of Seoul and that as a foreigner, I most certainly must reside in such an area, which is why I have such frequent encounters with door-blocking peons.  My humble Korean friends tell me that in their neighborhoods, the people are “high class” and thus one never encounters door-blockers, seat-jumpers, sidewalk-spitters, cell phone-shouters, taxi driver-rapists, soju-bag filthy room salon whoring business men, etc.

The exception, my Korean friends and coworkers tell me, are the prostitutes, which are in every neighborhood.  However, according to my well-mannered colleagues, the prostitutes in my neighborhood are not as beautiful as the prostitutes in their neighborhoods.  The word “아줌마” was tossed around when referring to the prostitutes in my neighborhood, while the word “학생” was mentioned when referring to the prostitutes in my colleagues’ posh neighborhoods.

And back to the elevator door blockers; I’ve been told by my 20-something idealist colleagues that “K-tard” is not a culturally sensitive way to refer to such people.  The word “K-tard”, I have been informed, could be offensive to both retarded people and Korean people, so now use of the word “K-tard” has been banned in the office.  Sweet suffering Christ, what will they take away next?  I slump down in my office chair like a sack of cement; this is depressing.

On Work and Office Life

I’m sitting in the Seoul Pub on a Friday night.  For those of you who do not know, the Seoul Pub is an oasis of dignity and sophistication completely unparalleled in Seoul.  The clientele are all men of refinement, class and international sensitivity.  It is a place where dignified people go to seek and engage in conversation on dignified topics and issues.  As I sit down and drink my beer, one of my friends starts to tell me that I am going about employment all wrong.  He says “Jake, old sport, self-employment is the only way to go.  Be your own boss.  Only suckers and newbies and people with no savings work for local bosses.  You’re smart and you’ve got money stashed away, why don’t you open your own English school?”

I’ve been told by people smarter than I am that the trick to running a successful English school isn’t to do everything well; the trick to running a successful English school is to merely do everything better than your nearest competition, who nine times out of ten will be completely clueless when it comes to (1) Business (2) English and (3) The English School Business.  You aren’t competing with foreigners, you are merely trying to out-compete the locals who “have no clue what the fuck they are doing, at all, ever, on any level, at any time”, according to my friend.

So apparently, I am doing it all wrong and wasting my time, and my life, and my unique skill set (most of my friends do not realize how stupid I actually am). All this time I could have been making boatloads of money which according to some, might have taken the edge off of living in this place.  Turns out I am not smarter than everyone else.  I always thought that I was smarter and cleverer than other long term expats but somehow my life story ended up being the same as everyone else sitting in this bar.  Hey, how did that happen?  All this time I’ve been working too hard, like an ESL hipster in pointy toed shoes trying to stomp on a cockroach in the corner of a single bulb kitchen in a dingy Haebongcheon apartment.  I’ve been over-exerting myself. Where’s my Maseratti? Where’s my supermodel wife? I’ve been doing it all wrong.

One friend told me that he hates this place down to the very core, but he keeps stacks and stacks of cash in a suitcase under his bed and when he comes home from work he sometimes takes fistfuls of money and throws it into the air while shrieking like a hyena.  He tells me that this somehow dulls the life-wrecking pain of not living back in Vancouver, or Miami, or Brisbane, or Bangkok.  I suppose we all deal with it in different ways.

Ever met someone who owns a successful business here?  I mean someone who was entirely self-financed and who built their business from the ground up?  Someone who has spent years and years as a businessman here in Korea and is not only a survivor but also a financial success without any help from mommy and daddy?  These people are exceedingly rare.  Beyond the patina of quiet civility that they display during working hours, you know that deep down inside of them there has to be a river of focus and toughness that most of us will never know.  These quiet and reflective and tough long-termers have somehow managed to not get steamrolled by the agonizingly dull life and stifling culture.  The third-world adventurism and excessive love of all things painful has not vaporized them.  Not yet.

Every body of water has its surface and its depths.  The surface is bright and glistening and enjoyable.  The depths are dark and spooky and dangerous.  Being a temporary visitor to Korea, a contract worker or an EFL teacher is surface water work.  Being a long term expatriate is deep water work.  As I sit in the Seoul pub, I reflect on the fact that myself and most of the people around me are in too deep; we’re treading water.  I wish I could go back to the shallow end of the pool.  I wish I were just a visitor.  When I meet someone fresh off the boat, I know deep down that we cannot be measured by what we have in common, but instead by our differences.  I’ve been doing it all wrong, but there’s always next year.

Posted in The Expat | 34 Comments

Itaewon Starbucks Number 3

I’m sitting in the third Itaewon Starbucks, the one at the far end of the magic mile just before you reach the HighStreet Market.  I had lunch at the Thai place above the HighStreet (HighPrice) Market and saw hoards of stroller-pushing expat wives shuffling into HighStreet to splurge on luxury delicacies such as Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and Root Beer; you know, the things that are otherwise unobtainable on the peninsula unless you have some sort of backdoor dodgy connection with the US army base.  For the record, I’ve been in the Highstreet Market twice.  Once out of curiosity, and then once again to see if they were still in business.  It’s a curious business model; buy western food in bulk from Costco or via the internet, divvy it up into smaller portions, and then ratchet the price up 300% and sell it to poor saps in Itaewon who cannot control their impulses, or whom are perhaps too fresh off the boat to realize that there are now 9 Costcos on the peninsula where one can buy western fare at non-extortionate prices.

Back at Starbucks, I’m beginning to think I might get some work done (maybe).  The only redeeming qualities of Itaewon Starbucks are that it is (1) not near any universities and (2) not near any kind of convenient parking or large residential apartment area.  This means no packs of university students using the place as their group-study room, and no packs of listless stroller-pushing housewives laying claim to tables and chairs for hours on end.  In fact Itaewon, with its various hills and crowded, narrow sidewalks is very stroller-unfriendly.  Just as it should be.  Let the breeders park their strollers and drink coffee in Paris Baguette.

Upstairs at Starbucks # 3 there are a few university aged girls who look like they are studying.  This is usually a good sign.  I have a window seat, staring down on the street and conveniently at my vehicle which I have parked across the street behind a red Ferrari California.  I’ve got a double shot of espresso, a notepad, a pen and my phone which I will use to answer emails.  To my immediate left two Korean-American guys sit down.  I know they are Korean-American before they even speak.  They have relatively short hair and are clad from head to toe in clothes from the GAP.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think that these two probably worked at the GAP.  Plus, KoKo (Korean-Korean) guys don’t usually hang out with other men in cafes.

The head to toe GAP uniform is a kind of symbol, a sign if you will.  It lets others know that the wearer of such threads is honest, open, direct, conservative and down to earth.  Men who wear head-to-toe GAP clothes will date a woman for several months before trying to touch her, and may even avoid physical contact until promises of marriage are made.  They are conscientious avoiders of physical intimacy with the opposite gender, these GAP guys.  They are two all-American quarterback choir boys from the bible belt of the USA who just so happen to have Korean faces.  They are safe.  If you had a daughter, you’d let her hang out with these guys because you’d know that no touching or any other act of impropriety would occur in their presence.  No penetration, or thoughts of penetration.

Me on the other hand, well, I kick my white Gucci loafers up onto the railing and pull my Armani shades down over my eyes.  I am not safe.  I touch women, and women touch me.  Do not let your daughter around me unescorted.  I get women pregnant just by making eye contact.  Myself and these two guys are planets apart; not even in the same solar system.  I have my interests and they have theirs.  It is safe to say that our interests will never intersect.

Before I can start rattling off emails and adding up sales totals in my notebook, the GAP guys begin their conversation.  It becomes immediately apparent that I need to move to a seat further away; but where?  In Starbucks, there is a kind of unwritten seating code whereby every patron does their best to avoid sitting next to every other patron up until the point where every other seat is occupied, and finally someone has to sit down next to someone else.  Some awkward, poor fool will walk in, glance around the place, see that no isolated seat is available, and then size up each and every patron as a potential next-door seatmate.  As I glance around the café, I realize that it has reached this saturation point.

So I sit back and absorb the riveting back-and-forth being exchanged by the GAP guys.  Predictably, the conversation revolves around religion, and since this is Korea, you can probably guess which cult religion they are deeply immersed in:

Gap Guy 1:  “Man, when you talk about the gospel, it’s like, really clear, like really smooth.  You have some kind of natural talent when it comes to speaking the gospel, and like, when you explain it in Korean, it all makes sense.  I really envy your Korean ability.”

Gap Guy 2:  “Don’t worry man, the longer you stay here, the better your Korean will get.  And besides, Pastor Cho has an even more divine ability to speak the gospel.  Everything I’ve learned, I learned from Pastor Cho.”

Gap Guy 1:  “But it’s like, when I read the gospel, it doesn’t really connect, you know?  But like, when I hear you explain it, it all makes sense to me.  I really think you have a gift for preaching the gospel, man.  Everything you say really hits home for me.”

Very direct.  Remember, guys in GAP clothing are not afraid to express their feelings to other men.  I can’t decide what’s worse:  listening to these two prattle on about Jesus, or listening to two gay Korean men plugging away with no lube in the Hamilton Hotel jjimjilbang.  Close call.  If I had to choose, I’d go with the two gay guys.  At least they’d finish quickly.

I decide to move seats.  I pick up my stuff and plop down next to a university girl who is pretending to study while at the same time eye-shopping the rest of the patrons.  What is she looking for?  Signs of weakness?  Loneliness?  As I sit down next to her, she pretends to study again, but over the next 10 minutes she never turns a page in her book.  Another girl on my right side is using her smartphone to take pictures.  Of what?  Wait, let me see.  Wait….she’s taking pictures of the fucking coffee mug and brownie!  She can’t be serious.  I don’t understand people who take photos of bland, boring, everyday objects.  Who takes pictures of a fucking coffee mug? Maybe she is a performance artist, mocking modern trends of consumption, and I’ve stumbled in mid-performance.

Is there some kind of weird food/drink fetish cult of women who take pictures of coffee mugs and then go home later on, print them out, blow them up and plaster them all over the walls of their bedrooms?  Are there groups of women so dense, and dull, and boring that the highlight of their day is photographing a coffee mug in Starbucks and then uploading it to some social networking website so that all of their friends can see that they are wealthy enough to buy a $4 cup of average quality coffee?  Like, look at me, I am a luxury girl, enjoying a luxury life in luxury Starbucks, please acknowledge my consumption!

I hope that if I ever feel the need to sit down at a chain café and photograph my coffee, that one of my friends will do the humane thing and euthanize me.  If there were ever a warning sign to potential grooms that your future bride-to-be might be a vapid, dull, waste of a human being, it would be her taking a picture of a cup of coffee inside of Starbucks.  Dear Korean guys, if a girl does this while on a blind date with you, run, don’t walk, run out the door and never look back.  And men who photograph coffee mugs in Starbucks?  They might as well have a lifetime membership card to the Hamilton Hotel jimgilbbang.

I finish my doubleshot, and decide that I will not be productive today.  Why?  Because fuck working on Sunday, that’s why.

Posted in Itaewon, The Expat | 20 Comments

Itaewon Bar Brawl: Not a Foreigner in Sight

Welcome to the new Koreanized Itaewon.  If you told me two years ago that there was a massive bar brawl in Itaewon, I would have immediately assumed that the guilty parties were foreigners, or at least some of them might have been foreigners.  Not in the new and “improved” Itaewon, however.  I wonder what would have happened if a bunch of foreigners started raising shit in a bar, throw chairs, breaking glass, and assaulting one another in Itaewon?  It would probably be front page news. The tables have now turned, and the most obnoxious, drunk, annoying, stupid assholes in Itaewon are locals for a change.

I miss the old Itaewon, before the Koreans “discovered” it.  The video below was shot at the King Club, early Saturday morning.  Most foreigners exited the bar as locals threw chairs and stomped people laying on the ground.  Two security guards, outnumbered about 15:1 tried helplessly to do their jobs.  The King Club wasn’t exactly high class to begin with:

Posted in Acting a Fool in Public Places, Fights with Ajeossis, Life in Korea, Losers, People with tiny penises, The Expat, The New Itaewon | 46 Comments

Who Loves You?

Friday afternoon, Itaewon.  I am wearing my Gucci viagra-blue ostrich leather loafers with matching blue alligator skin belt.  A pair of custom tailored Egyptian cotton dark blue dress pants with a 3/4 inch cuff.  I’m not wearing socks, because only pussies wear socks in the winter.  I am wearing a beige custom tailored Ferragamo cashmere duffle coat with a white Commes de Garcones texture-striped button down dress shirt underneath.  I am wearing a DSQUARED silk printed scarf and a pair of viagra-blue Gucci calf skin leather driving gloves.  I am fully accessorized, -no-  I am accessorized the fuck out with silver bangles and charms up to my elbows and a rose gold Rolex Daytona on each wrist; one displaying Seoul time, and the other L.A. time (do any of the other time zones matter?).  Physically I am in Seoul, but spiritually I am 5953 miles away, in my ancestral homeland of Los Angeles.  I am breathing hard and shuffling with determination down the sidewalk of Itaewon’s magic mile. Persons and objects that would normally appear clear and interesting now appear vague and obscure as if I am seeing them through a rain soaked window. The Goldfish Bar is now more than a bar; it is the womb that I must crawl into to survive.  It’s time to dig down.  Time to relax.

By virtue of a triumphant cocktail of prescription medication and legal over-the-counter male enhancement products; my mind is razor sharp and I have had an erection or an erection on command 24 hours a day for the last 10 days. My body is starting to crash.  I have been through it all before so I know the warning signs and I know what I need to do.  I need to STOP.  I have to get to the other side of the street and into the warm comfort of the Goldfish Bar before it is too late, before various vital body systems start to collapse and fail and call attention to themselves.  I’ve been busy these days, terribly busy.  No time to write, no time for self improvement, no time for hobbies or socializing.  Gotten loads of emails and Kakaotalk messages asking me why I’m not writing much.  The emails started out as polite inquiries:

“Jake man, I’m starting to worry about you.  First you write a Korean restaurant review, and then you stop posting.  Is everything ok man?  All the dudes at my hagwon have been waiting patiently for your next post.  You’re the man, man!”  -Seth in Sadang

The emails then escalated to panic level:

“JAKE!!  You sonuvabitch~! What the FUCK BRO!?  No post for over a month?  What the fuck am I supposed to do during winter vacation next month?  You just stop writing, just like that?  That’s fucked bro!  Super-fucked!  You can’t just leave us hanging like that.  I’ve never met you in person, but I’ve been to the Goldfish Bar in Itaewon several times, and every other place you’ve ever written about (Hallasan Burger is the shit, bro!) and I feel like we are bros, you know?  You can’t just puss out on us like that.  We’re supposed to, like, what…. read that Eatyourkimchi site or something?  Fuck that bro, and fuck you if you stop writing!”  -Bob in Bundang

The emails then became flat-out hysterical:

“I’ve taken a bunch of aspirin to thin out my blood, and now I am sitting naked in my bathtub in Haebongcheon with a razor in one hand and my iPhone 5 in the other hand tapping out this message.  I’m going to cut my wrists, Jake.  Are you happy now?  Your lack of writing is like a slap in the face, but you already knew that.  I fucking DEPEND ON YOU.  I moved to Korea and got a place in Itaewon because of your blog.  I swear to god that I will cut myself if you don’t post something in the next 24 hours.”  –Howard in Haebongcheon

And after the emails came the Kakaotalk messages, sprinkled with grains of desperation and making unfounded accusations:

kktalk

 

Adding insult to injury came the taunting private messages on the Expat Hell Forums (my own fucking website, for Christ’s sake!), like muffled cries for help from a piece of floating driftwood in the middle of a storm, almost daring me to come out of retirement:

 

sellout

So why haven’t I written much?  The truth is, once you take a break from writing, it’s hard to get back on the literary horse and give it a kick in the ribs. To slide down the narrative embankment squeezing your groin muscles until they are about to tear and ford the ice cold blustering, raging river while your four legged friend fights for footing on rolling sludge covered rocks. Then the gasp and the thrust and the howl and the prayer as you reach the other side only to see another identical embankment of mud and snakes and loose gravel and editing tweaks and grammatical errors and unresolved plot points that you have to climb up.

Sound like fun?  Sound easy?  Sound like something you want to do on a Friday night?  Ok, now do it 376 times.  That’s how many posts I’ve made on this blog. And remember: you can never tell the same story twice, and you have to write straight from the heart, and you have to write from personal experience, and you can never lie. There come periods of time, perhaps for a few days, or a few weeks, or a few months when my brain can no longer send signals to my fingers to write anything.  These literary lulls are the result of the cycles of experiences that one goes through naturally in life.

There come points in time where the long term expat has to ask themselves what they are doing and why they are doing it and how much longer they’ll be doing it before they snap out of it and rejoin the “real world” with real responsibilities, and real contracts with real obligations and real consequences for not keeping one’s word.  An expat will, from time to time, get stuck in a kind of cycle or routine where nothing seems new and every day seems like a carbon copy of the previous day.  The wind is gone, the sails lay slack and the literary ship ain’t moving.  No inspiration, and a general feeling of indifference make cracking open a cold beer more appealing than switching on the computer and typing out post number 377 for the benefit of everyone I know, and thousands of people I don’t know and will never meet.  Signals from the brain to the hands to the fingers to the keyboard versus a cold beer, a comfortable place on the sofa and a few hours of mindless television before I pass out only the repeat the same cycle the next day.  It’s an easy choice to make.  Too easy.

As I reach the Goldfish Bar, I turn off my cell phone.  It is important to sometimes make yourself unavailable to others.  Every minute you spend looking at your smartphone is a minute you won’t spend looking at other people, watching, observing, taking mental notes, learning, speaking, or making eye contact with another human being. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of being a long term expat in Korea is watching fellow western expats self-destruct. The Goldfish Bar and the Seoul Pub are good places to get a ringside seat to the self-destruction show.  It was nearly a decade ago that I witnessed my first and just recently that I witnessed the last. And frankly some of them have been close enough to hurt. If Korea has taught me anything, it’s that there will be more. And once again, I’ve learned there isn’t much you can do at this point other than become an observer.

Truth be told, I can’t say for certain how long I will continue writing.  Eventually, a day will come at the Expat Hell corporate office in Itaewon when all of the Expat Hell L.L.C. accountants, proofreaders, research staff, interns, expat experts, foreign correspondents, stringers, office machine maintenance people, support staff, lawyers, and large-breasted googly-eyed plastic surgery junkie secretaries will receive their last pay checks. The office cat will bail out, the company dog will boost himself up the window sill ready to jump, and the roaches will start to appear from their hiding places (god bless Itaewon). The heat will shut down, the fans will stop moving, and the phones will become plastic relics of a past I will never return to. I will take the mouse and the printer and the monitor and the desktop PC and the manuscripts and the speakers and the keyboard out to the middle of the street in Itaewon and pump shotgun blast after shotgun blast into the heap until the white-hot barrel burns my hands, my ears are throbbing, my laughter has turned into a hyena shriek, and I lose all control of my bladder.

When I first started writing on this site, I was young and strong and handsome and healthy. But there have been some changes. My life and my physique and my mind have been mortar-and-pestled by the inhuman onus of writing Korean thoughts and experiences of a personal nature week after week after week, 376 times. At some point, the ceaseless relentless intractable ticking time bomb of mind wrecking stress involved in staring at a blank computer screen every week and producing a masterpiece will visit upon me a horrific kind of reverse evolution. I will regress and become a hideous, hopeless shell of a man. Don’t pity me. It’s my lot. I wanted to write. That’s what I’ll get. Like Icarus with wings of wax flying towards the sun. I’ll have run my race. I’ll sit with my Viagra-blue ostrich skin loafers kicked up on the coffee table and wait to die.  For now though, the lights shine reliably late into the night at Expat Hell headquarters in Itaewon.  Cut off my fingers and I’ll type with my toes.  Cut off my toes and I’ll slap keyboard keys with my dick.  My words will outlive me.  My name is Jake, and I’ve lived in Korea too long to go back.

Posted in Itaewon, The Expat | 25 Comments

Best Burger in Seoul?

It is Saturday night and I’m driving around Mokdong in the Avante with two of my consigliere.  I have Madonna’s second album playing at full volume.  The first track, “Material Girl”, was written by Peter Brown, who also includes Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen among his clients.  The high-heeled 1984 skip pop jam hit prompts one of my consigliere to question my choice of music for today’s grueling Seoul traffic anxiety-fest.  “Material Girl”, I explain, is a song that is not only still relevant 28 years after its first release, but is actually quite reflective of Korean society as a whole.  However, while Madonna’s idea of a “Material Girl” was an ambitious career woman fighting to get ahead, the Korean version would be more of a disappointing, vapid, room salon girl addicted to Prada bags and plastic surgery.

 

Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right,

 

It’s actually a VERY Korean song, except it wasn’t written, or performed, or ripped off, or plagiarized by a K-pop bimbette troupe.  But whenever I fire up this album and the first track loads, I can’t help but think of how suitable this song is for the Korean experience:

 

Some boys try and some boys lie but
I don’t let them play
Only boys who save their pennies
Make my rainy day

 

Prompting further visible discomfort from my friends, I skip to the third track, “Like a Virgin”, written by Billy Sterling and Tom Kelly, who count Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Cindy Lauper as clients.  “Like a Virgin” is the first song that pops into my head whenever I attend a wedding in Korea.  It’s got an upbeat Billie Jean style bass line coupled with a “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” poppy, synthesizer kind of edge.  This song also serves as an excellent backdrop on those rainy nights, when all you want to do is check into a hotel, change all the light bulbs to pink, throw on your Pororo print panties, school girl uniform, and ankle socks, and then dance like a bad girl while pouting your duck lips and blowing kisses in front of the mirror (you little slut).

 

I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found you

I was beat incomplete
Id been had, I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new…

 

But I’m not really here to talk about music today.  What I’m here to talk about is burgers.  Man stuff.  You remember burgers, right?  You used to eat them before you moved to Korea.  I remember them too.  You know me; I never write about food.  I hate food blogs, and Korea blogs, and Korea food blogs that review and post pictures of food in Korea.  I hate foodies, and people who take pictures food, and people who take pictures of coffee, and mixed drinks, and then pose with the cup next to their face, as if to prove to everyone that they did in fact consume what they just photographed.  What’s wrong with these people?  That being said, this is the one and only time you will ever read a restaurant review on this website.  I am very particular when it comes to food.

 

Best Burger in Korea?

Madonna album turned down, and we’ve been circling around Mokdong for about 40 minutes looking for this place.  The problem is that we have all been to this restaurant, just never by car.  So we aren’t quite sure where it is.  All the buildings look the same in Korea.  Generic poured concrete blocks filled with PC rooms, Cafes, Icecream shops and Pizza Shops.  If you’ve seen one block in Seoul, you’ve seen them all.  We circle and circle the block where we are fairly certain the restaurant in question (Hallasan Burger) is located.

Hallasan (한라산)  is the name of the volcano on Jeju island.  The volcano has no connection to burgers whatsoever.  The name was just a fluke idea by the restaurant’s owner.  Rumor has it that the Korean owner/head chef of Hallasan Burger studied for three years at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York before apprenticing under epic chef Eric Ripert.  The owner recently returned to Korea, and while serving as head chef at two large hotels, has opened this small boutique burger joint on the second floor of a nondescript building in Mokdong.  From my previous visit to Hallasan Burger, I remember that there are no actual signs on the outside of the building.  There is only a small green and yellow sign in the elevator area of the dingy, otherwise cookie-cutter office building in the heart of Mokdong.

I searched and searched the internet for directions, but this place doesn’t have a website (yet, that I know of), and so we took to the streets and searched for the place the old fashioned way; by going from building to building.  Finally, my friend spots what looks like the building.  He gets out and runs into the stairway to look for the green and yellow placard that reads “Hallasan” in Korean.  We have arrived.  There is no actual parking in the building itself, so you will have to park in the garage of the Officetel next door (with Thai restaurant), if you drive.

We park, exit the garage, and walk back to the “Hallasan” building.  The elevator is out of order and we take the stairs to the second floor.  On the second floor, there is a strange bar with black walls, and black lights hung all over the place.  They have a few white cats running around the bar, which adds to the creepiness, I suppose.  Past that bar and on the right side is Hallasan Burger, the small sign on the door is only in Korean, and lists the opening hours as 12pm to 3pm, and 7pm to 10pm.  We arrive around 7:30 and all twelve seats are already taken.

The single waiter, who speaks no English tells us to wait outside, and he will call us when a table is ready.  The three of us can already smell what we’ve come for; what is probably the best burger and fry set in all of Korea.  Collectively, the three of us have been in Korea for over 30 years.  That’s a lot of food, a lot of restaurants tried, a lot of burgers, and a lot of disappointment.  Searching for the perfect burger in Korea is a kind of Holy Grail challenge that can be all-consuming.  Personally, I stopped eating burgers a long time ago, because the disappointment of poorly executed burger after poorly executed burger started to wear me down; chip away at my soul.  You can only be disappointed so many times before you start to lose hope.

After about 20 minutes, the waiter comes out and tells us that a table is available.  We walk inside and sit down.  It’s a small place, with a half exposed kitchen, a single refrigerator, and three tables with four chairs each.  There is one waiter, and the chef/owner mans the kitchen with the help of a single trainee.  The menu is a single page of tan colored paper with only five burger options.  Previously, I had the “K1 ‘Premium’ Burger”, but today I order the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”, which is a flat-grilled, crisp edged cheeseburger, using grain fed hanwoo (Korean) beef.  The patty is accompanied by shredded romaine lettuce, fresh tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and generously sized slices of avocado.  The sauce is something like a mayo-wasabi mix.  Price:  23,000 KRW:

House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger from Hallasan Burger, Mokdong, Seoul

House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger from “Hallasan Burger”

One of my friends orders the “Seoul Burger”, which according to the menu, has a mix of rump, rib-eye and fillet steak, served with a side of béarnaise sauce, -almost impossible to find in Korea.  When it arrives, the “Seoul Burger” is somewhat disappointing.  It arrives with standard fast food trimmings, and processed cheese, which is a bit of a letdown considering the 19,000KRW price tag :

"Seoul Burger" from Hallasan Burger, Seoul.  Best Burgers in Seoul

“Seoul Burger” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul

My other friend orders the “Island Bacon Sandwich”, which is not a burger, but actually a Reuben sandwich with extra lean corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing on grilled rye bread.  The set includes oven baked, sea-salt and vinegar potato chips and one 1/4 sliced kosher dill pickle.  Price:  21,000KRW:

"Island Bacon Sandwich" from Hallasan Burger, Seoul.  Best Burger in Seoul.

“Island Bacon Sandwich” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul

It is worth nothing that the only available sides are house-baked sea salt and vinegar potato chips, or what the menu calls “duck fat skin-on” chips.  Personally, I prefer the duck fat skin-on chips because the sea salt chips are a touch sweet and for me, slightly under-seasoned.  Each burger or sandwich is served with a single 1/4 cut kosher dill pickle (no Korean pickles here, for the love of Christ).  The owner/chef doesn’t offer any drinks aside from water, and there are no sauces or seasonings available at the tables.  The walls are a dark green in color, and the tables look like re-purposed doors surrounded by short-legged bar stools.

Though I can’t speak for the other dishes, I will offer a short review of the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”.  This overall dish had good balance, the acidity of the kosher dill working well with the richness of the hanwoo patty, though by contrast with the duck fat skin-on chips, this dish seemed a touch salty.  The hanwoo patty itself was of high quality and had silky smooth texture yet deep, intense flavor.  With wasabi-mayo and avocado slices, it could be argued that there was kind of a “California Roll” flavor going on here.  The oven baked buns are made in-house, and present a slight hint of garlic seasoning, but not enough to be overpowering.  The burger was not so large as to be messy, and could be enjoyed without the use of fork or knife.  This restaurant is not typical Korean plastic-chemical fast food fare, nor is it gimmicky Itaewon/HBC “please take a photo of our food” fare.  Just honest burgers, with no options and minimal sides.  So confident is the owner/chef, that you cannot even choose how long your patty is cooked.  Simply order, and wait.  No nonsense, no whining, no endless options to customize.

The bill came to 63,000KRW for three of us.  Water is free, of course.  There is no restroom inside of the actual restaurant (the place is tiny), so you will need to use the restroom in the hallway outside of the restaurant.  Since no alcohol is served, people tend to eat, and then vacate their seats as opposed to loitering around.  Previously I had come during lunch time, and I didn’t have to wait, but I’ve heard that evenings are much busier, and on weekends, the wait time can be from 20 to 30 minutes.  I heard about this place from a friend, who is a chef at a well known French restaurant.  I doubt that many foreigners have been inside the place, since it only opened two months ago.  The technical precision in the kitchen is hard to fault, and the dishes had lovely flavor balance. The limiting factor for any Korean kitchen is the ultimate quality of the ingredients that can be obtained, especially with regards to vegetables (compared to the finest produce in the Mediterranean or Japan) but the owner of Hallasan Burger is clearly a top class chef. His cooking and own style have clearly developed from years spent overseas.

Best Burger in Korea?  After years of searching, I can confidently say “Yes”.

They don’t yet have a website (that I know of), so I do not have the exact address.  I’ve done my best to mark the location on the maps below.  You go out Exit 8 of Omokgyo station, turn left at the first side street, and the proceed down the street for about 100 meters until you see Kimbap Cheonguk (김밥천국) on your right.  Turn right immediately after passing Kimbap Cheonguk.  Go another 50m and you should find yourself at the intersection below.  Because there was no address on the building, I can only point you towards the general area (see picture 2).  Look for the “A+” room salon with red windows on the second floor:

Hallasan Burger, Voted Best Burger in Seoul Korea

Second floor, check the stairway for the green and yellow sign.

Hallasan Burger, Voted Best Burger in Seoul Korea

Within walking distance of Omokgyo Station.

 

Posted in Best Burger in Korea, Best Seoul Restaurants, Expats Helping Expats, Life in Korea, Seoul Eats, The Expat | 97 Comments