Sunday, July 27, 2008

Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"

<---Travelogue #44: How My Favorite Class Changed, Grew Up, and Said Goodbye
--->Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008

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

On Sunday it stopped raining and I went to Quiznos for lunch.

That was supposed to be the beginning and end of a non-story of a weekend afternoon: I would eat an angus steak sandwich and grade a mountain of bland TOEFL essays on how "clothes make people different." That was my plan...until he walked into the Quiznos.

"Hi," he said crisply. He was a middle-aged Korean man with a mischievous younger man's smile hiding under a baseball cap and an easy this-is-my-neighborhood swagger to his walk. A woman I later learned was his wife followed him closely. "Handsome beard," she told me. "Thank you." I said, thinking if only everybody used "Handsome beard" as a greeting, we'd all be happier people.

I returned to eating my sandwich and grading my papers. When I looked up to contemplate how in the hell to fix a sentence reading, "People behave differently when they wear different clothes, because the clothes make them act so, they make people remind of their position, and control people's mind," I found the man suddenly taking a seat at my little table. "Where are you from?" he asked casually. I told him Memphis, and he asked if that was near Seattle. I told him it was in the south of the U.S. and then I said what many Memphians say: "Elvis Presley is from there." My table-mate responded with, "I like American pop music." He rattled off the names of a few Beatles songs, and then turned our conversation to a more obscure direction.

"I'm the happiest... girl...
" he sang lightly but surely, "in the whoooo-le U.S.A....good morning, sunshine!"

Here I was on a Sunday afternoon at a Quiznos in Bundang, Korea, listening to an older man sing to me, "I'm the happiest girl in the whole U.S.A."

I didn't know whether to feel slightly uncomfortable or strangely patriotic.

"Do you know this song?" he asked me.

I didn't. "Who sings it?"

He paused. "A woman. Female!" He then reached across the table and took my pen and a sheet of paper. He scribbled down the following note:

I later laughed aloud at the "song by female," but as he was writing it, I merely nodded politely.

"Excuse you," he said, handing me back my pen.

"Oh, excuse me?" I said, cautiously correcting him.

"Yes, excuse me. It was a joke!"

We chuckled together and he started to ask me another question, before deciding to use the pen again:

"C.C.R....Creedence Clearwater Revival?" I asked. This time he did the nodding and I did the singing: "I see, a bad moon, rising," I sang.

"Tom Jones!" he countered.

Was Tom Jones a member of Creedence Clearwater Revival?

I didn't know. To be honest, the main factoid I knew about Tom Jones was that he once guest-starred on a very special episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

"...had a barrow in the marketplace..." my new friend sang proudly.

Was that a line from a Tom Jones' song? "It's Not Unusual"? It sounded so familiar...because as I discovered on the internet, it was from The Beatles "Obla-Di, Oblah-Dah." I also learned that Creedence Cleerwater Revival has nothing to do with Tom Jones.

But that didn't matter to my new friend and me. When his wife finally received her fruit smoothie, he arose from the chair and told me of the location of his restaurant. I told him I'd visit it.

Minutes later I sat in the same spot at Quiznos, mulling the bygone moment. And then he came back. Had he left something behind? Apparently he just wanted to chat up the Quiznos employees one more time, and then he was ready to leave for good. He glanced in my direction. "I miss-a you," he said.

I didn't catch his name, but I will remember him as...the happiest girl in the whole USA.

Related Posts:
Travelogue #35: The Usual Suspect at Dos Tacos in Gangnam (A similarly random mealtime encounter in Korea)

<---Travelogue #44: How My Favorite Class Changed, Grew Up, and Said Goodbye

--->Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Message to My Readers

It's hard to find blog competitions.

I've been looking for some in earnest without much success, but what I didn't account for is my ever-vigilant mom. Yes, my mom, a lady who once upon a time saw copying and pasting as the height of computer savvy. Things have changed, for she is now a master of Google and has found

Click to give BLOG4REEL vote!

Blog4Reel is a real-deal enterprise and I've been in contact with its showrunners. It's a grassroots organization from San Antonio, TX, and the people in charge show legitimate interest in helping aspiring writers/bloggers. Blog4Reel will be featured on a future episode of CNN Headline News "News to Me," and I've been informed that my blog might be featured on the show! Anyway please click the VOTE NOW link on the top-right of this page to register and vote for Writing the Ship to Korea. Thanks!

P.S. I hope you're not discouraged by registering to vote. Blog4Reel does this so it can distinguish legit votes from illegitimate ones. (If you have difficulties voting, let me know. I'd like to take this contest seriously.)

Thanks again!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Travelogue #44: How My Favorite Class Changed, Grew Up, and Said Goodbye

<---Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer
--->Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"

From the first day of last November to the middle of this July, I experienced a relationship full of laughter, learning, and frustration. Through its peaks and valleys I felt like an authority figure, a put-upon older brother, and a performance artist, often all at once. When calling attendance, I was apt to sing a student's name (Jenn-i-FER! Jenn-i-FER!) to vociferous boos of "uhm-chee" (Korean for "bad singer"). I would then raise my voice to calm the noise, laugh, twirl my black marker through the air, and teach-act vocabulary words like "presumptuous" and "arrogant" with over-the-top gestures. My students would giggle, sometimes with me, sometimes at me. One mastered the art of rolling her eyes. Many of them would never accept my hairy legs. But through it all, they raised their hands. They wanted to participate. They really wanted to participate. "Don't chew (ignore) me teacher!" Ray would say if I wouldn't pick him to read. "Ray, I'm doing my best, everybody wants to read," I'd say. He'd mull this for a moment. "You're chewing me!" he'd shout. All this would happen in the span of a single forty-minute class, and before I'd know it, the bell would ring.

On Friday, after seven and half months, the bell rang for the last time. (If my students would read that sentence, they would groan, "Cheesy, teacher!" Here's to you guys.)

In the beginning, the class was just one: Anna. She was twelve-years old, blue-framed glasses creeping up her nose, and a shy squeaky English that started and stopped at random beats. Anna was smart and an avid reader; she liked Peter and the Starcatchers, a hit children's book published in the United States. I could actually have a real conversation with her; she found humor in my jokes not just because she thought I made a goofy face, but because she could understand my words. I discovered quickly this would not be some low-level "what does the word 'recipe' mean?" ESL class, but a legitimate exchange of ideas. I was excited.

A couple weeks later, the class had grown to six or seven. All of them were bright.

Just like any promising relationship, initial excitement stabilized into mutual comfort and affection. I respected them, and they respected me, though one of them, after learning my middle name, began to call me "Greg" in the hallway instead of "Mr. Pollack." As a class we chuckled over the dunderheaded Gavin Bloom, a silly character in a detective story who would talk about going for a fun swim rather than solving the mystery at hand. The students plainly got it.

They understood character motivations and they cracked the story's mystery far sooner than did the characters. As for interaction among the students themselves, the boys and girls did not sit next to each other, but they did get along, laughing at each other's jokes and listening to each other's comments.

Shortly after a memorable day in late February, things started to change. The class grew larger and continued to grow larger through the spring. Instead of six pairs of hands raised high in the air, there were thirteen or fourteen.

One student wrote emails to me, complaining that she was not given enough time to talk, nevermind that she was already the most vocal participant in the room. My perfect class looked less and less perfect by the day: one boy began to annoy everybody, to the point where students were outwardly whispering "shut up." Another student suffered from a severe lack of confidence, and a peculiar hiccup-cough when she read aloud. Though she was one of the best writers in the class, she rarely wanted to participate. Some new kids came into the class, became overwhelmed by the intimidating sea of raised hands, and never returned. The kids' light-hearted jokes at my expense hardened to the point that the hiccup-girl wrote a scary story that ended with me killed by a whiz of bullets. What began in November as a family-like atmosphere of easygoing education had turned into a circus of side-chatter, hurt feelings, and kids feeling either ignored or put on the spot. Again I analogize it to a real relationship between two people, albeit the comparison this time is a negative one: what used to be by turns thrilling and comforting became not-so-vaguely annoying.

My eyes wandered. I took a deeper interest in another class, one with a small number of sweet-natured, engaged students.

I even bought them ice cream. They were quickly new favorites.

The new schedule for busy season was released last week. I noticed that I had lost the class I had maintained ever since that afternoon in November. My supervisor said there was no malicious motive for the switch; the reason was to merely let the students see a new face in front of the dry-erase board.

Friday was my last day. I brought three bags of candy. Also, I aimed for the nostalgia card, printing out a paper with this picture :

The picture backfired. "Why are you frowning at Joy?" they demanded. Poor Joy was the youngest girl in the class: a fourth grader among fifth and sixth graders. When we studied Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," she covered her ears at the scene where the demented narrator cuts out a feline's eyeball. "Don't worry, it's not real!" I said. "But it makes me think of my rabbit!" Joy said. Keria, precocious Keira, cut in with, "Mr. Pollack, stop reading this story! You're being selfish!"

With that history, I should have known Joy might have been sensitive. "Why are you making that angry face at me?" she asked.

I explained that it was supposed to be funny, but the kids weren't laughing. It was my last day, and all they could talk about was my mean face in the picture.

They brightened up when I popped open the bags of candy. I told them they could ask me or tell me anything, that this would be our closing day where we could wrap up our classtime and just talk. Joy raised her hand. "Yes," I said. "How many candies are we allowed to get?" she asked.

What can you do? Kids like candy. Still, a few of them reminisced about my hairy legs, with Grace arguing that class was better in the winter when I wore pants. Ray asked questions about a girl whom I described a few speaking tests ago. The students' task was to describe their ideal future husband or wife, and to properly embarrass myself so they wouldn't be embarrassed, I had described my "dream girl."

We chatted briefly about what they had learned in the class, but mostly they just fought over the chocolate. When the bell dinged, there were good-bye high-fives, waves, and with the more brittle students, only nods of the head. I don't remember whether or not I told them I'd miss them.

Will I miss them? Some of them, sure, but all of them? Probably not. I will see them in the hallways over the next three months; after that, I'll probably never see them again.

Will I change my mind about missing those who annoyed me? If you ask me three years down the line, will I smile at the memory of the girl with the hiccup-cough who plotted my death in her scary story?

I guess we'll have to see.

<---Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer
--->Travelogue #45: Why A Korean Man Told Me He's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA!"


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer

<---Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"
--->Travelogue #44: How My Favorite Class Changed, Grew Up, and Said Goodbye

She worms into your skin, leaving microscopic but persistent beads of sweat on your knees, your ankles, and your lower back. "Hot" is not the right word for her. Neither is "humid." She is altogether more ominous, more insidious, and more alive. In an otherwise empty apartment she's a companion who refuses to leave. You hide under the weak puff of an outmatched air conditioner. You try cold showers. You put on a fresh t-shirt, only to peel it off moments later. You can't escape. She is summer, and her name is Seoul.

I thought I knew heat. I grew up in Memphis, TN, infamous for its thick hazy Julys as memorialized in Hustle and Flow. I didn't love the unblinking humidity of the Bluff City, but I could handle it. I got used to it. Every year offered the same harsh-sun ninety-something temperatures, and every year I reacted the same way: I jumped into swimming pools and drank a lot of Dr. Pepper. Even though I grew impatient with the season, I survived it and didn't mull it too much once the leaves started changing colors.

But here it's different. Temperatures hover in the the low eighties, effectively deceiving you into expecting mild breezes that never quite come. There's a sneakiness in the broiling gray air that makes you squirm, inch-by-sweat-stained-inch. When the rain finally drops, it steams.

On the first day of July, I walked zombified through the neighborhood of Seohyeon with my friend Jovan. We sought refuge from the cloudy heat at California Pizza Kitchen, sipping iced mojitos through straws and staring out the windows, prematurely ready for September browns and October orange. We later wandered into the movie theater for a evening showing of Wanted, and despite the film's abundance of knife-fights and Angelina Jolie, I fell asleep during the climax. Seoul's oppressive summer is turning me into my dad.

As for Fourth of July weekend, it offered no fireworks and no flapping stars and stripes, but some of us did our best to conjure the spirit of the day: that meant Ogles bringing hamburgers into the office. Korean teachers and American teachers sat side-by-side, chowing down on patties from the Japanese-based Freshness Burger chain. We Americans shared stories of Fourth of July traditions, and the Koreans oohed and nodded in the same way I would if I was being told of Chuseok. It's funny to think that a holiday so ingrained in you by years and years of memories can be so, well, foreign to somebody else. For that somebody else, the Fourth of July is nothing more than a few lines in a history book or an occasional conversation with an American.

The world is big, dude.

And the summer in Seoul is long. Two days ago I bought a fan. I'm ready to fight the heat.

Bring it on.

<---Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"
--->Travelogue #44: How My Favorite Class Changed, Grew Up, and Said Goodbye


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"

<---Travelogue #42: Your Teacher is a Gorilla.
--->Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer

In addition to maintaining this blog, I've begun working on a "novel" over the past two months. I put "novel" in quotation marks because I'd feel presumptuous calling it an honest-to-God book when I've written only thirty pages on Microsoft Word. Nevertheless, I'm excited about the project: a coming-of-age account of a college senior stumbling towards adulthood as a "Half-Virgin." What does that mean? I've been answering that question through workshops with Seoul Writers, a spirited group of scribes who meet twice a month to read and provide constructive criticism.

Anyway, I thought I'd provide an excerpt from my work-in-progress. If you've stumbled upon my blog in the past, you might recognize elements from this excerpt from my story "Love in the Night", though I've significantly changed the content to fit into the context of a larger, more ambitious work.

Without further ado, here's the excerpt. Thanks for reading!
I didn't even kiss Elena. Not really, anyway, but I came close in the front seat of her rusted tin Volkswagen Bug, the midnight thrum of jazz through her radio and the two of us...giggling? I was the kind of guy who smirked and nodded but never giggled. Until that night, two years after Rikhi. Until Elena. She was nineteen, freckles across her nose, thin lips light and pink like a secret. Elena.

She had given me a ride to my apartment, yet I didn't want to leave her car. She gave me her phone number and I called it right then, an experiment, stupid, juvenile, but so what?

"You know what I just thought of?" she said into the phone, her eyes cool and blue, "that scene in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart stares at that lonely lady through his binoculars."

"I remember that..." I said, piecing together the movie in my head, "And she was setting an extra dinner plate even though nobody else was in the room."

"That's it," she said.

I clapped my phone shut and looked at her. "What made you think of that scene?"

"Sometimes I just think of things and want to say them and don't, because they're weird or random, but with you I thought why not."

"Hitchcock is the man," I said.

"He is the man," she said delicately. "Agreed."

I laughed at her.


"You're still talking into the phone."

For God's sake, I'd gone off the proverbial deep end. When I talked to Elena, I didn't think about my feelings. No. My mind buzzed on its own, an electric current that made me goofy with its sparks.

"We're being silly," she said as I nuzzled close to her neck, her blonde bangs like the tips of feathers brushing against my nose. I sealed her forehead with a nub of a kiss, a nub. Barely anything at all.

She was still wearing my coat.

Hours earlier, at the party, she put on the coat and I chuckled at how pillowy it looked against her skinny arms. I stuffed my fingers into the sleeves and we dangled our limbs "like those stuck-together twins from that nutty Matt Damon movie," she said. We didn't know each other too well but still we rocked back and forth in a rhythm that beat only in us. We probably looked like bozos.

It was an apartment party. Everybody else was drinking, jello shots or beers but she wasn't into alcohol. I'd first found her in the kitchen, peering into the fogged window of the oven. She was baking chocolate chip cookies. "Do you prefer the chewy kind?" I'd asked, "or the crunchy kind?" Her freckles crinkled against her cheeks when she said, "chewy, no doubt."

Elena wanted to become an actress. I told her about my director dream and my would-be eyepatched assistants. She liked the eyepatch idea. As for her own skills, she insisted she could handle roles as varied as Queen Elizabeth to Prison Lesbian #5. "Or a combination of the two, which I tried once at an audition for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I thought it was an inspired choice but I didn't get the gig."

We talked about books we never read but should have. "I never touched the Bible," she said, "but I feel like getting into it would be the perfect way to needle my parents, like if I become some super-Christian."

"Why would that piss off your parents?"

She pressed her index finger to her nose. This told me she was thinking about what I had asked her, and I felt a rise because of it. Her thinking and me waiting. It was a little moment but I couldn't shake it. I didn't want to shake it. I wanted to feel it again and again.

"They're bigtime Richard Dawkins people, profs at the state college. No God, no thank you kind of people."

I told her that I was Jewish, that I believed in God but that I didn't go to temple on Fridays, that I didn't keep sabbath, and that I ate pork barbecue sandwiches by the truckload. My parents weren't particularly religious; their only concern was for me to marry a Jew. Their reason was history and numbers. "And your Grandpa Vladimir's wishes," my mom said. "As long as that old conk is still alive."

Before long Elena and I were God-ded out. Decade-old Will Smith songs began to pulse from the living room and we knew the lyrics to every last line. From God to Will Smith, the move felt strangely, impeccably natural. We sunk into a couch with her roommate asleep and drooling at our feet. I hummed shyly but Elena sang, her lithe fingers jousting the air with no irony, with no reason. We were bozos and I loved it. I was smitten by the waft of her peach perfume, by how her cheeks turned pink when she smiled, and by how she looked as if she was blushing even when she wasn't.

"Incredible," I said, offering her a sheepish high-five. Our hands clasped together, lingering, tingling. She looked at me. Stared. I stared right back. The party melted into a blur of incoherent shouts around us. Staring, we kept staring. And then I blinked. "I didn't know we were playing a game," I said. "I didn't either," she whispered.

The music quieted. The party waned. Somewhere in my logical mind I knew it was silly. This all was silly. I hardly knew this girl and she hardly knew me. But that didn't seem to matter. That didn't seem to matter at all.

In the car I wanted to kiss her. I should have kissed her. But she was transferring to a different school, one in her hometown. She wanted to be closer to her high school sweetheart, whom she described vaguely as smart and nice and sweet and "I can't do this," she said after I planted that nub on her forehead. "He loves me."

And so we said good night.

"If it doesn't work out," I asked her. "Will you come back?"

She turned the radio down. "I don't know," she said. And then she drove away.

The next day, I realized she took my coat with her.

Another Excerpt from "Half-Virgin"

<---Travelogue #42: Your Teacher is a Gorilla.
--->Travelogue #43: My Hot, Sweaty, Drippy Korean Summer