Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Writing the Ship for One Year...

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog! Though I only began the Korea content in late October, I would like to extend a thank-you to anybody and everybody who's ever stumbled upon these pages to share in my Macbook tragedy, talk about crazy stories in Esquire, or argue about who or what exactly is a "goth".

Thanks. And to those of you who've caught up with me during my Korea times, I appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope to hear more of them in the future.

Until then, I'll keep writing.

June 24, 2007 : Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself...
June 24, 2007: Ninja Turtles Don't Wear Denim: My Shopping Disease

Travelogue #42: Your Teacher is a Gorilla.

<---Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?
--->Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the August 2008 issue of Eloquence Magazine (South Korea).

They call me furry man, they call me gorilla, they call me King Kong, and they call me Hairy Pollack.

Some of my students think I'm a beast, not because I bare my teeth and growl, but because the black curls on my legs are, in the words of wily fifth grader Grace, "gruesome!"

"Don't wear shorts!" Anna pleads. "Mr. Pollack, Mr. Pollack!" Jennifer says, "can you please do me a little favor this weekend...and shave?"

My students regard my hair with a mixture of repulsion and fascination. At first their comments were amusing; now they're downright predictable. Everyday. Every class. When I walk past their desks, they sneakily brush my arms and remark "fur..." in the same way that Homer says "donuts." The other day, one girl drew a picture of me that made me look like a hirsute troll: it's now the background image of my cell phone.

My hair experience is not an uncommon one among foreigners in Korea. One Canadian wore shorts to work and enjoyed that privilege; that is, until his hairy legs caused a stir at his school. Thereafter, a meeting was called and he was informed that shorts were no longer appropriate work attire.

Due to the thick sweatiness of the Seoul summer, I've worn shorts every day since the end of May. And I haven't completely shaved my face since then either. My students' cries for me to clean up my "dirtiness" have intensified. I tell them it'd be weird if I'd shave my legs. "In America, no guy does that," I explain. "But you're not in America!" they counter. "You're in Korea!"

As I walk through Itaewon on a Sunday afternoon, I unconsciously gather anecdotal evidence about the relationship between hairy white foreign men and their Korean girlfriends. I notice two specific instances of Korean women lovingly stroking their boyfriends' stubble. Two months ago, I briefly dated a Korean woman who would inspect my sloppy beard as if she was an astronomer studying a moon rock. Taboo might be too strong of a word, but perhaps there exists a certain I-should-not-be-liking-this-but-I-do! attraction towards a foreigner's follicles. The prototypical Korean man is clean-chinned and, I suppose, clean-legged.

Apparently I am the opposite.

On Monday I go to a jimjilbang (a traditional bathhouse filled with casually flappingly naked Korean men). I have not yet fully indulged in the jimjilbang experience, but I decide to use its barbershop because my electric razor is no match for my facial hair. Forty-five minutes later, I am a new man with a fresh complexion.

When I come to class that day, I expect to be greeted with gratitude. That does not happen. "Can I say something shocking?" says Ray, "you actually looked better with the hair on your face!" He then complains that I still, STILL, did not shave my legs!

Oh well. Hairy Pollack I am.

Hairy Pollack I will be.

<---Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?

--->Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?

<---Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)
--->Travelogue #42: Your Teacher is a Gorilla.

"Hey Alex, are you going to the soccer game?" she asked. Janet wanted to know if I'd be joining a group of co-workers for the North Korea-South Korea World Cup Qualifying showdown later this June.

"Who all's going?"

She cringed. "Why is that important?"

"I don't know," I said off-handedly. "I was thinking I may have already done the Korea soccer experience..."

She looked annoyed at my answer. Even pissed-off. I re-traced my words and contemplated aloud, "Did that sound snooty?"

"Yeah, it did," she said. "So you're only going to do something if it's an experience? So that's the reason you dated a 37-year-old, for the 'experience'? Is that the only reason you do anything?"

The conversation had become about more than just soccer. I quickly justified myself, explaining to her that when I really do enjoy something, I don't care whether or not it's an "experience". Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that Janet had a point.

"Just doing it for the experience" is a rationalization I have often used in Korea to try things I would have never imagined trying a year or two ago. With every step I take across the streets of Seoul there lies an indelible sense that this lifestyle is fleeting, that I' d be remiss not to seize any chance moment that toes the line between peculiar and plain bizarre. When again could I, in good conscience, meet an older Korean woman in a shadowy nightclub and pull her close to me like it ain't no thang but a chicken wing? When again could I buy a ridiculous hat and wear it proudly, even though it'd make me look like a cross between Justin Timberlake and a Las Vegas cardshark?

When again will I be twenty-three, single, sans mortgage and any responsibility more time-consuming than SAT teaching?

"Just doing it for the experience," I say. It's the motivation that pushes me towards blowfish. And live squid. And spending New Year's Eve with a pair of Korean high school girls who don't speak English.

But what do these "experiences" mean? I like to say that I'm growing up here, I mean, I think I am, anyway. But perhaps I won't know how much I've changed until I return to my American life and discover whether my rolodex of memories can survive the cross-continental translation.

Until then I'm going to the game.

<---Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)
--->Travelogue #42: Your Teacher is a Gorilla.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)

<---Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!
--->Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the July 2008 issue of The East (UK).

hey want to be beaten up, they want to be arrested, and they want it to be seen on tv.

Minutes ago they attacked the barricade, flopping it until it flung off its hinges. Now they're jabbing ladders up at the policemen. The candlelit crowd roars for these shirtless rebels. It's after midnight on Jongo, and an estimated 40,000 protesters and navel-gazers have shut down one of the busiest thoroughfares in Seoul. They're mad about mad cow disease and U.S. beef imports, and they're not going anywhere. Through a bullhorn the police warns against illegal violence, only to be countered with a truck-riding protester and his intercom chant of "YOU ARE ILLEGAL! THE GOVERNMENT IS ILLEGAL!"

I've never before been to a protest, much less one of this magnitude. The mad cow controversy has effectively conquered Korea: you can't pass a television set without seeing the persistent stream of protests or President Lee Myung-bak's befuddled reactions to the ongoing frenzy. The issue is on the tip of my students' tongues, and I've torn my hair out trying to remain even-handed at a disease I see as dangerous...only because of its overblown, out-of-proportion reputation for danger.

On this very blog, a thoughtful reader commented on a previous post of mine, arguing on behalf of those who see legitimate risk in importing American beef. "My opinion is that only one percent of risk is high enough, because we are not talking about a tummyache, but a disease that kills your brain slowly," he said. I cringed at how mischievously he squeezed "kills your brain slowly" into a sentence where even he admits the extreme unlikelihood of contracting the disease. And forget one percent: according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, "A rough estimate of this risk for the UK in the recent past, for example, was about 1 case per 10 billion servings." And that's in the UK, a country with a legitimate outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s, as opposed to the USA, where all of three cows were ever found to carry the sickness.

But therein lies the rub. At the protest, I see firsthand how little the outcry has to do with beef safety. This is about individual agendas. While news outlets like the Korea Times later report that, "40,000 protesters marched in downtown Seoul Saturday," I find these "protesters" less than completely united, not to mention how some of them look disinterested in "marching." I see many huddled on blankets, eating tomatoes and drinking soju. I see others hoisting Che Guevara revolucion flags, and still others raising the rainbow gay pride flag. Families are picnicking and college students are laughing.

You can argue that such diversity in this crowd spells solidarity against the beef imports, but to me it spells a blur of disassociated iconography that builds to a whole lot of posturing and a fair bit of violence.

Not everybody is cheering on the shirtless rebels as they try to climb atop the buses and engage the police fist-to-fist,

but nobody is booing. The better-mannered candlelit majority is complicit. Some of them have been on this street for seventy-two hours, but still they chant for Lee Myung-bak to resign. They chant and chant and chant.
I feel sorry for Korea's president. But what can I do?


<---Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!

--->Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Travelogue #39: Live from World Cup Stadium: Korea v. Jordan!

<---Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)
--->Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the July 2008 issue of Eloquence Magazine (South Korea).


In the thirty-ninth minute of the first half, midfielder Park Ji-sung threads through the Jordanian defense and rocks the ball into the net. Delirium seizes 53,000 red-shirted Korean soccer fans.

South Korea 1, Jordan 0.

I have never been to a professional soccer game, much less one in Asia, so I didn't know what to expect when my co-workers and I trooped into the massive Seoul World Cup Stadium for a square-off between South Korea and Jordan. What I find is that both teams are looking to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and that this crowd clearly has a rooting interest.

Yet amid the proud twirl of the Korean national flag and the spirited go-team chants of the standing thousands, there flies a checkered Che Guevara flag.

That's right - Che Guevara, infamous Cuban communist guerrilla, icon of trendy t-shirts and poorly-received Steven Soderbergh epics. "What does Che Guevara have to do with Korean soccer?" I ask my friends. They don't have an answer.


Korea strikes again in the forty-sixth minute, this time on a Park Chu-Young penalty kick. I'm sitting beside Roy, a friend-of-a-friend in a San Francisco Giants baseball cap.

He is Korean, and this night isn't a cultural eye-opener for him; rather, it's just a soccer game between his team and the other. He grabs me by the hand so we can jump in tandem to celebrate the 2-0 score. He's chanting something and I'm humming right along with him, as are my friends. But in midst our hopping I feel like I'm sporting a mask, pretending that South Korea not only is my team, but that it's always been my team.

I find that even at a soccer game, hell, especially at a soccer game, the question of home comes into play. Call it an overthought reaction given my recent state of my mind, but as I watch the collected waves of red in the stands, I almost feel like I'm eavesdropping on somebody else's party.

Okay. I hear you. Alex, it's a friggin' soccer game. It's okay to clap, dammit. And clap I do. I also shake my head appropriately as Jordan, a team that looked lifeless in the first half, notches two goals in the span of eight minutes to tie the game in the second. How did Jordan come back? I blame myself and the rest of the fans for losing interest in the action and bringing "The Wave" alive.

The game ends in a tie. Like compressed air, the crowd leaks out of the arena. It's amazing how quickly the collective sonic energy dissipates into empty seats and muttered plans to get dinner. The atmosphere is like that of a romantic fling gone sour: the first half was the climb to orgasmic ecstasy, "The Wave" was the complacent cigarette after the fact, and the Jordan comeback was the wait, you're-not-going-to-call-back-are-you? end to the story.

I should have clapped louder.

<---Travelogue #38: Mad American Cows (And Why I Miss Cookie Cake)
--->Travelogue #40: 40,000 Koreans on the Street (Is It Really Just About Beef?)