Smoke Break

11 05 2010

In Korea, cigarettes were part of the standard rations issued to every soldier. By law, all male citizens were required to serve for two years and most emerged from the experience with a recently acquired nicotine habit.

In fact, smoking enjoyed a broad popularity throughout Asia. From the upper class, suited, hair-parted, heavy drinkers in expensive bars to the grime-faced, blown-back haired motor bike delivery drivers of fried chicken, cigarettes were an ubiquitous presence on Asian lips. College students immersed in a game at Internet cafes, bar goers practicing their rudimentary English with drunk foreigners and old men squatting to gamble at a card game or just the traffic go by, all had packs in their back pockets.

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Victory, Even in Defeat

1 03 2010

Something started last week that I am sure went unnoticed by a vast majority of the U.S. population, but in some circles was an event long-awaited.

A lucky few thousand received in their e-mails code keys allowing them to participate in the closed beta for what one could arguably call the most anticipated video game of all time, Starcraft 2.

Now, for those who have no interest in this form of electronic entertainment, bear with me for a few paragraphs and I promise to reach a more accessible topic.

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A Tribute of Sorts

7 07 2009

Today on airwaves, TV channels and an overflowing Staples Center, fans and detractors ruminated on the life of the late pop star great Michael Jackson and the impact of his life, music and overall weirdness. I’m inclined to simply say he wrote some good pop tunes and let’s leave it at that. Any serious discussion of the man requires a serious discussion of his penchant for little children. I’d rather just remember the music.

Still, even NPR covered the coverage of Jackson extensively and the constant reference made me think of my most recent experience with the man’s oeuvre. It was a mildly humorous event and it happened in Southeast Asia so it’s a perfect story for this blog.

After I recovered from the “Beer Hoi” induced haze of my first few days in Hanoi, I decided to embark for the countryside and perused the packed backpacker area in search of a good trek or tour. This is actually quite an intimidating task, as there are so many tour operators in Hanoi that the choices are practically endless. Adding to the frustration is that after some cursory glances you realize that everyone is offering the exact same package. Price varies wildly and the operators will tell you everything you want to hear, so it’s hard to discern a great trip from a bad deal. Even the advice of fellow backpackers can be mixed.

I eventually settled on exploring nearby Halong Bay, known for its beautiful Karst formations, and an overnight stay on a junk boat. Since every tour operator offers such an excursion, the result is not an idyllic slumber aboard a creaking vessel adrift in a lonely bay but rather an assembly-line shuttle out to the bay and back. With no seeming way to escape this, I sought the most youth-friendly establishment so I would have a ready group of friends to help mitigated a crap experience. The tour I chose ran out of a an Aussie-owned hostel that seemed popular with the young folks and promised beer as well as a boat.

I made my voyage with a solid ensemble of 11 or 12, a mix of Europeans and a few Americans. We had a good deal of fun kayaking in the rain by day and drinking aboard our junk by night. By 9 a.m. of the last day, we were all quite tired and looking forward to sleeping on the bus ride back.

At about this time, our troop of weary souls was joined by a crew of souls not so weary. A detachment of four English guys, one English girl and a German dude from another tour run by the company we signed up with joined us for the bus ride back. They were in high spirits, as they had been sustaining themselves on hard liquor instead of sleep.

To the dismay of all others involved, the rowdy Brits and sole German (who the English guys simply called “Germany”) piled into our packed mini-bus for the four-hour ride back to Hanoi. Conveniently for them and unfortunate for everyone else, the bus had a readily available iPod jack for the easy playing of one’s favorite tunes.

We were tired, some of us were hungover and most of us had not been consuming bottles of vodka at an alarming rate since 10 p.m. last night. But the roaring few occupying the back row of our bus shattered all possibilities of sleep for those not so blessed with their own music-playing devices.

For the sake of decency, I will not repeat the (mostly shouted) conversation of that outrageous crew. It consisted of strings of profanity, mockery of Germany (the guy, not the country)  and loud, repeated and prolonged calls for the playing of the song “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson.

About halfway back, pretty much everyone had succeeded in ignoring the madmen seated in the bus’ rear, despite the inebriatees’ best efforts to goad and heckle the vehicle’s silent majority.  Bored of this, Germany shambled to the front, plugged in his iPod and blasted some techno music at a startling volume level. Such was the terror inspired by the raw drunkenness of these guys that at first nobody protested the sudden introduction of the pulsating beats. Eventually, the music was turned down to a more reasonable level, but it still persisted.

It was at this point, stuck in traffic outside Hanoi, that the loudest of the sloshed British chaps, sporting a straw chapeau, began his mantra demanded the immediate and repeated playing of “Man in the Mirror.” We listened to the song over and over again, with Straw Hat Dude emphasizing the greatness of the ballad by dropping a firestorm of f-bombs. While I found the situation more humorous and memorable than annoying, I was still nonetheless relieved when the bus finally arrived back at the hostel.

Thus, the best thing I can say about MJ is that despite the constant obscenity-filled call for “Man in the Mirror,” I found myself thoroughly enjoying the song. A damn good tune, tinged by the ravings of a near-lunatic in the background. A lot like Michael Jackson’s life, I would say.

The Importance of Being Polite

19 06 2009

Learning the hard way often seems to be the only method from which I am capable of perceiving any discernible lesson. For certain subject matters, I lack the kind of common sense intuition that comes naturally to most. One of the standout incidents examples would be in the area of tact and politeness. My mother spent hours drilling a relentless amount of such lessons into what has proved to be a very unreceptive brain. She apologizes for this profusely to any women I date and stresses that she tried, really she did.


What is Soju made of? As it costs about a dollar a bottle, I'm gonna say it's chemically synthesized.

Korea then, presented an interesting challenge. How would I fare with my prospective employers considering I now had two barriers to scale, that of my own lack and that of geographic displacement? Asians, presented in the stereotype of the American mind as formal and stiff, might find my more casual attitude lacking in propriety. I discovered Koreans to defy this categorizing and instead presented themselves as an effusive and warm people, given the proper environment. This small story details one such situation and the lessons in Korean mannerism which I gleaned from the experience.

Two weeks into my new career as a molder of young minds, our boss decided to prove his gregarious nature with a generous buffet at a local raw fish joint. The whole staff was to be treated to plates of raw fish and bottles of booze, for Korean employers like their employees to think the company is doing so well such a feast can be afforded. This is often the case even when it’s actually not. Indeed my particular academy had long since left the black for the red, but appearances had to be maintained, I suppose.

As a recent transplant, the whole experience served as an introduction to many quintessential aspects of Korean culture. We dined on the delicacies of the sea, imbibed the national liquor of Korea (Soju) and heard speeches presumably about the general awesomeness of our work establishment. Or at least, this I assume as no one bothered to translate said articulations for me. This was the first of many linguistic lapses on my employer’s part (the sign that informed us, in Korean, that we would be paid five days late springs readily to mind).

As the diner wore on, I grew tired of the chatty company of women, both foreign and local, that surrounded me and spied the Korean men, cigarettes in hand, engaged in animated discussion further down the low tables at which we sat. I had learned zero Korean at that point, but knew that at least one of the three could speak some English, so I decided to attempt a conversation.

Aware of my own intrinsic lack of courtesy, I made every attempt at politeness and learned a very hard (that’s in terms of alcoholic content, not difficulty) lesson about Korean culture. The three I had joined consisted of my direct manager, the owner of the English academy and the head bus driver. The owner, who’s name I learned many times but never remembered, had no grasp of English and instead supplanted this absence with a firm grasp of the Soju bottle. Koreans have many rules governing the consuming of alcohol and it’s important to show the proper respect when drinking with elders. I had already learned the very basics, such as holding your glass out with two hands when an older person pours a drink for you, but there was a second rule about which I had not been instructed.

In such a social business situation, it is considered rather rude for someone to have an empty glass and borderline insulting if you must fill your own glass. Upon sitting down with the three gentlemen, a large shot glass full of Soju was offered to me. Such a presentation is bound to confuse the average American. To us, liquor in a small glass hearkens back to the days of our drinking’s first experience. We know that to maintain our machismo, the liquid must be consumed completely, quickly and without hesitation. The offer thus made to me, I quaffed the libation and set the empty glass down.

The thorough dispatch of the beverage amused my Korean compatriots and I immediately found another full shot in my hand. This I also vanquished in seconds and in seconds more, my glass was brimming again with Soju. I thought of my mother then and how she always stressed the importance of being a gracious guest and properly respectful in all manner of interactions. Compelled by such a creed, I threw back the glass yet again, bringing laughter and bemused smiles from those who had offered it.

Yet, they were not satisfied and a fourth full glass sat on the table in front of me. At that point, I decided that if I desired to be able to walk away from this restaurant under my own power, it would be best to adapt the virtue of restraint. My glass no longer in need of refreshing, the Koreans continued merrily with their conversation while I contemplated ordering some water.

Minutes later, however, the shot which I had been regarding warily on the table in front of me needed consumption. Koreans, as it turned out, are also quite found of toasting, cheering and clicking their glass together whenever possible. Such an occurrence demanded my participation, though I cannot say to what I was so heartily saluting. So, my mother’s instruction ever in my mind, I dutifully obeyed my superiors and got well and truly drunk.

Lesson learned. I think. My memory of the evening grows increasingly foggy from that point onward.

Freelance Continued and Other Updates

16 06 2009

Matador just put up another one of my articles and this one differs significantly from my previous effort. One of the things I like about the site is that it covers so many aspects of travel, including the philosophical and emotional impact world travel often has on individuals. This recent piece explores how I felt as a self-described procrastinator set loose on my own in China and Southeast Asia. Read it and find out!

I had hoped on my return stateside that I would be able to find gainful employment in the industry of my degree before my funds dipped below a critical threshold. Despite my best efforts and many resume revisions, my outstanding qualities and qualifications continue to elude any potential employers. The reason for such rejection confounds me when the choice seems so clear. Come on guys, just hire me already, you know you want to. Really, it’ll be awesome.

Such attempts at persuasion coming to naught, I have been forced to find some vocation to sustain my basic necessities. While I managed to avoid delivery duty again at the sandwich shop of my collegiate career, I will tomorrow attend a training session for that most ubiquitous of part-time jobs, a waiter. I’ve been employed in a number of fields, but this will be an experience entirely new to me. While I can be quite personable and amiable in social situations, I wonder about my ability to maintain such cheerfulness for shift after shift.

In the world of order taking and food serving, the twin skills of overbearing enthusiasm for items on the menu and dogged but non-invasive interest in the persons seated are what vault one to the upper echelons of food service income. Alas, my financial fortunes will again be left to the kindness of strangers. I pray for rich drunkards and recent lottery winners.


11 06 2009

My travels in Southeast Asia have finally born some journalistic fruit. A meta travel site for backpackers, the Matador Network, has published an article I wrote about exploring the semi-remote town of Nan in northern Thailand. Filled with motorbikes, caves, friendly locals and maps that indicate there should be a waterfall here, but really there isn’t, it’s a good read.

Check it out!


Lessons in Authoritarianism

21 05 2009
pagoda 3

Can you ever imagine listening to a guy like this? The answer for most students seemed no.

The initial response I gathered upon announcing my intention to teach English in Korea provoked some playfully derisive skepticism from friends and family. Most of this stemmed from the fact that I have a very low, gruff voice that tends toward mumbling and often renders me incomprehensible to listeners. I’m also infamous for mispronouncing certain words, namely “archive” with a soft “ch” instead of a hard one.

However, I had my own personal doubt that I thought would far exceed my sometimes garbled speech. Teachers, especially those of young kids, need to possess a presence that commands authority. Ever since I tried (and failed) being a patrol leader in Boy Scouts, I’ve known that I lack leadership qualities as such. I can’t really summon the kind of demeanor or personality that would instill terror in the heart of anyone, especially misbehaving Korean children.

I said to hell with it and flew over there anyway. Plus, I expected that upon arriving I would undergo a week or two worth of training to compensate for my complete lack of teaching knowledge. Instead, I arrived for my first day of work, was handed a stack of books and a schedule, and then shoved in front of a classroom of 12 nine-year-old children with absolutely no instruction as to what I should do with them.

Deep breath.

The kids were enthusiastic enough, gleefully shouting out the names of objects as I pointed to them in the class book. “Bee!” “Flower!” “Lizard!” Okay, fun enough, but it took all of about five minutes to knock out the first two pages in the allotted six for the entire class. I looked up at the clock, at my increasingly talkative (not in English) students and realized with dread that I had another 45 minutes to kill.

It was a rough first day.

For the next six months, I struggled for control. I tried making jokes (went over their heads), yelling fiercely (they couldn’t understand what I was saying) and giving up (class time = game time!), all to no avail. Overall, my approach’s defining characteristic remained its inconsistency. Depending on my mood, the boundaries about what constituted acceptable behavior and not shifted. This made enforcing rules difficult on the rare occasion that I had the courage and energy to enact them.

All this frustration culminated about halfway into my year-long contract with a physical altercation. There are no laws in Korea forbidding corporeal punishment, and Korean teachers often carry thick bamboo sticks with them to class. I had on occasion tapped kids on the head with a marker or folder to get their attention but never with any force behind it. On this particular day, I found myself so annoyed with an individual kid that I lost my temper, rolled up a book and swung full force at the standing boy’s head. Lucky for him (and me, in retrospect), he nimbly ducked under my brutal swing, resulting in gales of laughter from his classmates and extreme embarrassment for me.

This incident caused me to seriously rethink my general approach. I realized that I had been trying to control and corral these mischievous kids but losing control of my own self in the process. A flustered person does not inspire much respect.

Over the next few weeks, my teaching style evolved to compensate for this. However, I didn’t consider how I had changed or what I had accomplished much until after I came back. The realization occurred to me as I was dispensing tips to a friend about how to deal with authority problems at her new job. I had actual, constructive advice (which I almost never do on any subject) gleaned from my trial-by-fire in Korealand.

Thus, I present the three most important maxims for exercising brutal authority:

1) Develop an impenetrable skin. People are going to say or do things that inevitable rankle you, but remaining calms is key. Learn to yell without yelling. If your emotions start to color your scoldings, this signals victory to most misbehaving children.

2) Lay down the lines. Two parts to this, you must make it clear what isn’t allowed and then convey with your body language and tone of voice when the rules are being violated. My default mode was friendly and joking, but I would quickly lose the jovial tone if some kid started acting out and adopt a very even and serious voice. From there, I would ratchet up the anger and noise until obeyed. However, because my rage wasn’t emotional, I could just as quickly switch back to being fun and kidding again.

3) Know when you’re beat. Some kids just don’t listen, so don’t waste your time with a situation you can’t handle. For me, this meant sending a kid down the hall to one of the Korean teachers who would ream them in their native tongue. Korean mothers can be quite scary, so threatening to inform their parents worked well also.