Sunday, February 24, 2013

I Hate Lost

Lost is considered by many people to be in the pantheon of great television shows. Its ambitious portrayal of a diverse group of people that are in a plane and then not in a plane and then almost in an airplane, and then in an entirely different plane and in a different plane of existence and then actually they were still in the first plane the whole time but dead now was well-received by both audiences and critics. Mystery, suspense, religious symbolism, action, love, laughter, livin' and dyin': Lost had it all. But beneath its veneer of dirt makeup realfantasie, there's a lot of stale air. Compelling in the first four seasons, the hour-long drama quickly dived into the the kiddie pool of storylines only to find its spinal column shattered by the sheer force of gravitas it laid upon itself. 

I hate Lost

I came from a whitebread family, so I know white people TV when I see it. Despite the fact that I consider film to be superior to television in almost every way*, I spent more time in front of a TV than a movie screen. When I was a kid, primetime television was rarely subversive, dangerous, thought-provoking, or genuinely funny, but it was a dumb old friend. I'm not sure when I recognized this about television, but I know that I gravitated towards shows like Ren and Stimpy, The Simpsons, late 80's/early 90's episodes of Saturday Night Live, and Mr. Show. These shows were the spice to the safe programming to which I was exposed. Shows like Alf, Full House, and Family Matters were filler until I could get to the good stuff. Unfortunately, there was too much filler and I began to distrust and discount television as an intelligent or creative medium for entertainment.

Because of this, I fell out of the cultural loop. By the turn of the millennium, I was invested in DVD's of shows I used to love and movies that challenged me artistically and philosophically, but rarely did I follow current programming. Friends and CSI was popular at the time, I think. I hated laugh tracks and I highly distrusted television drama. It wasn't until I started watching my friend's DVD of the first season of Arrested Development that I really started to feel differently about television. I was too late to catch it every week when it aired on Fox, but I became a sponge for the antics of the Bluth family.

Before I moved to Korea, I noticed a lot of my friends were interested in a show called Lost. I was able to watch a couple episodes, but it didn't really stick because there was no context. It wasn't until my last year in Korea (four years later) that my friend (the same one who owned the Arrested Development DVDs) informed me of his love of Lost. I respect this person's opinion greatly when it comes to art, so I decided to give it a shot.

The trouble with being 8 years behind the start of a behemoth series like Lost is that watching can become tedious. Sometimes I watched two or three episodes a night, and sometimes I went weeks between viewings. I was able to finish it by the winter of 2012. 

I'm a fair person, so when I criticize something, I need to start with the positive. It seems more constructive that way, and there are things that Lost got right. As I mentioned earlier, the first four seasons of the show are pretty immersive. They're smart. They don't give away too much, and the characters seem compelling. I appreciated the focus on an individual character's backstory and how that backstory leads them to the conflict they find themselves in on the island. 

The setting and scenery are beautiful. To be honest, I was actually excited to see how it would all turn out, and yet a glossy sheen is coated over almost every scene. That's not to say the show glistens, but like every whitebread show, there is a plasticity in the camera that somehow makes dirt pretty.

The characters that I liked depended greatly on the actors playing them. I liked Desmond, Hurley, Charlie, and Sun, because not only did they have rich and complex histories, but the actors playing them were smart enough to not force their emotions. Whether they laughed, cried, or had freakouts, I believed them. If you perhaps think I'm being unfair to the women of the show, please feel free to scroll back up to the picture of the character Kate. If that doesn't satisfy you, then just check out the range of the actress playing Juliet.


It could very well be that I'm biased against blonde actresses with crystal blue eyes. I can't stand Cameron Diaz, either. If we were to compare these two ladies' acting abilities to the personalities and physical traits of, say, sea creatures, then Elizabeth Mitchell's Juliet would be the jellyfish to Cameron Diaz's yelping dolphin. Throughout the series, Juliet approaches problems with the ferocity of a sofa, looking extremely high while doing it. She is also guilty of something a lot of actors on this show are guilty of: tears-in-voice. 

For those who don't know, "tears-in-voice" is what an unqualified actor does when he or she can't find an emotional connection to the script or situation and takes the easy way out. Instead of actually crying, an actor will sound like they're on the verge of crying. "Tears-in-voice" is usually accompanied by the face one makes when they're constipated. Elizabeth Mitchell resorts to this technique a lot, but I guess it's hard to find a real emotional connection to something sad when you have no soul. Take that, robots.

I know I'm picking on this particular character a lot, but her introduction marks, for me at least, the decline of the show. I could easily pick on other actors for a multitude of other things.

So let me do that.

Jack is played by Matthew Fox and though this particular actor doesn't resort to "tears-in-voice" as much, his "hero-with-a-broken-heart" routine gets tiresome. The male lead I have the most trouble with in Lost is that of the guy that plays Sawyer. I'm not going to even bother looking up his name. His gruff, conniving manner, womanizing, and bouts of abusive anger are charming at first, but his approach is ham-fisted. It was about halfway through the series that I realized I had seen this kind of acting before: 

And yet the acting isn't the most disappointing facet of this series. 

The pacing of Lost is hit or miss, too. When I think back to the series, I don't think of the witty dialogue, or the camera work, or the scenery. I think of people's faces. That's probably because a lot of camera time is devoted to the expressions of the actors. There's a lot of looking in this show. A lot of pensive looking. "Hey guys! We need the audience to know that Juliet is thinking! Cut to her face!" or "Hey guys! Sawyer's seething about something! Get a close up! Now hoooold it. Hoooooooooold it. Bam! Lost drum-gong noise and roll end credits! God, I love this job! Hup! All out of cocaine! Let's burn the American flag!" is what I imagine the producers saying all the time (or at least when they're out of cocaine).

And yet, not even the pacing is the worst thing about that show.

This is what is:

In the first episode of the Lost, an airplane crashes into an island. As I calmly watched characters frantically race around, dodge propellers, and engage in medical procedures, I thought, "You know...I bet they're all already dead. God, that would suck if I was right." And you know what? I was right. They were already dead. It did indeed suck.

The ending of any piece of art or entertainment is just as important as the beginning. It's what gives a work its closure and ultimately its message. I know television is a different animal than a feature-length film, and the ending of a series is guided not just by the writers' imaginations, but also by external forces on a show (network executives, actor availability and skill, etc.). Case in point: Twin Peaks had a brilliant run through the first half of the second season. But because the network executives had decided the killer of Laura Palmer should be revealed, the last half suffered greatly. 

If there's at least one thing Shakespeare has taught us, it's that an easy way to end a drama is to kill everyone off. Bam. Done. Hamlet's over. Go home. Lots of writers use this device. Tarantino used it in Reservoir Dogs (if you count Mr. Pink possibly getting himself involved in a shootout after he swipes the money). In television, it's an easy way for writers to get rid of a character. It's lazy, but it works.

Unfortunately, write lazy. Take a show like St. Elsewhere, which ends with an autistic boy looking into a snow globe housing the hospital from the series, makes the whole show appear to have been a fantasy. Dallas is another example. Patrick Duffy's character gets killed off. Fans disapprove. Producers bring him back in the 9th season with the "it was all just a dream" device. Not only is this the laziest form of resolution, but it insults the viewing audience. 

Lost's big reveal is that everyone was dead the whole time. That the island was a purgatory of sorts, a holding place until the dead were able to handle their own mortality, and while that does sound kinda good on paper, it's such a letdown to see it put into practice. Why go through all that trouble for such a simple reveal? Yes, characters do change a bit from season to season, sometimes in one episode, but why kill them off twice? Why drag the dead out of their watery grave so we can watch them die again and then be told they were really just dead the whole time. How does that reward the viewer? It doesn't. It snatches away the time and thought the audience invested in the show and replaces them with a variation of lazy writing. 

After having thought long and hard about all this, I have to ask myself, "Would I have watched the show knowing what I know about the ending?" In cases like Arrested Development, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" I can come back to the DVDs time and time again because I feel rewarded. It's the same with Breaking Bad, because even though the show isn't over yet (OH GOD 8 MORE EPISODES), I have complete faith in Vince Gilligan and his ability to get a show where it needs to be. But with Lost, it's a deflated, "No." I wouldn't have spent so much time invested in these characters if I had known they were dead the whole time. 

Would you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Listen: Bob Dylan

Nobody ever questions my taste in music when I wax poetic about The Beatles. You'd be hard pressed to find anybody of normal intelligence that has not at least heard the name. And yet, when I then go on to talk about Bob Dylan, a lot of people just shut down. 


This is probably, "why."

Well, the main critique of Dylan is his voice. Really, I can't argue with that, because it's not everybody's cup of tea. Even at 21, Bob kinda sounds like an old man. He's got a very midwestern nasal sound that eventually drips into this liquid ghost feel. And then he sounds like Kermit the Frog. And then he sounds like he's congested. Much later, his voice sounds like it's being fucked with rocks. 

Of course, these complaints are usually followed by an additional, more positive statement about his lyrics. "The man's a poet/genius/prophet, but he can't sing." This is ultimately where I have the problem. You'd think that if common opinion was correct, that this one guy from Minnesota was such an awful singer, he wouldn't be able to maintain a record contract for two years, let alone 60. Thankfully, popular opinion is often worthless, so by September 2012, Dylan will have released 35 studio albums.

So let's pretend you're actually interested in getting into this guy, but you're timid, afraid, almost...English. Well, fear not, Chairman Jmao's got you covered. 

Before I get into the meat of this "how to," I'm going explain how I got into Dylan.

I grew up mostly in small towns. I was born in New Hampton, Iowa, a town of 6,000 people. When I was 7, I moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a town ten times that size, but compared to a lot of other places, it was still nothing. Small towns are quaint, and I'll probably retire in a small town to harrass the children, but when it comes to music options, you're kinda fucked. From the mid-to-late 80's, we had records, tapes, and radio. In the 90's, we had CDs, tapes, and radio. In a small town, those are your options, and there not being many music stores from which to procure this music, you kinda had to just wait on the radio. I grew up listening to a lot of 80's pop and heavy metal from my two sisters and my brother. But for some reason, I never cared about Metallica or Guns-N-Roses. It didn't reach me the way it reached my brother. Searching for a musical identity was difficult. My parents listened to folk music, but not a lot of it, so I was kinda left with Peter, Paul, and Mary, and that's not going to give anyone ANY cool points.

"Puff, puff, pass, nigga!"
They did, however, have some various "one hit wonder" tapes with music from the 50's. I couldn't get into all of it but there was one song that just kept blowing my mind. It told the story of a gambler that felt that he got cheated as a result of losing his new hat. Despite the other gambler's insistence that no wrong had been committed, the first man shot him so many times that it broke the bartender's glasses behind him. The song, of course, is "Stagger Lee" by Lloyd Price.

The music is infectious, but it was the story that captivated me. I didn't want to dance so much as watch the events in this song unfold and write them down myself, just to prove that it really happened. I was 8, so I didn't know a lot about hyperbole, but a man that gets his ass capped enough times to create a hole so other bullets can pass through and destroy other things behind him sounds like he really pissed somebody off. I got that much, at least.

That song alone started off my obsession with what us Yankees call, "the oldies." There is a longer name, but it's dumber than, "the oldies," so I'm just going to stick with what I originally wrote. I discovered so much music that blew my little mind in so many ways. I then found the Beatles and a much longer list of lesser bands from the 50's and 60's.

Of course, this is about the time that Nirvana started to make it really big. The video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was constantly playing on MTV. Then Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and the safer rock of Collective Soul, Soul Asylum, and the Gin Blossoms started hitting the airwaves. I kind of absorbed it all, all the while continuing to listen to the oldies, and most especially, The Beatles.

I can't really tell you where I first saw or heard of Bob Dylan, but it could easily have been "The Concert for the Prince's Trust," on HBO. I saw a picture of an old man, huddled over the microphone, just doing something. Maybe singing. I wasn't quite sure.

It wasn't really until 1998, when I was 16, that I saw Bob Dylan. Radiohead's OK Computer was up for a Grammy Award for Best Album. So was Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. For those of you who weren't watching, this was the now infamous "Soy Bomb" performance. While Dylan was singing a brooding, anti-love song, a man in pants runs up on stage and begins to gyrate and pump. On his chest, written in green paint: "Soy Bomb." Nobody knew what was going on. Even Dylan just kinda looked out of the corner of his eye and went with it. I'm still not sure if it was entirely deserved, but Dylan won the Grammy for Best Album that year. So I guess that was what set it off. Thanks, "Soy Bomb" guy.

Getting into Dylan was difficult, because I had no idea where to start. The first album seemed like the logical choice, but I didn't recognize any songs of his, so I went with Greatest Hits, Volume I. In retrospect, I could have done much better with a few other albums, so to help you, dear reader, here is a list of great ways to start off with some Dylan.

1. Chronologically

This is obviously the easiest way to start, just diving in. You really only have to get through one really folky album before you hit The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which has some of his most amazing songs. Be warned, though. You won't get electricity until 1964's Another Side of Bob Dylan, which is Dylan's first anti-album, and his first attempt to cast of the "folk singer" moniker he'd been lassoed with. From then on, it's pretty smooth sailing until you get to 1969's Nashville Skyline, which is a pretty tame adventure in country western-style lyrics. 

For the first-time listener, the 60's is a daunting task. It's not until 1974-1976 that you get the next truly mind-blowing albums, and that's about 15 albums so far. So for now, let's stop here and review some of our other options.

2. The Greatest Hits

Any artist that's had such a lengthy run is bound to have some decent "Greatest Hits" releases that encapsulate his music. For many artists, that's true. Styx. You can pretty much sum up Styx in a greatest hits album. The same is true for a lot of 50's and 60's artists whose main source of income came mostly through the sales of singles. You can't do it with the Beatles, though, and you can't do it with Dylan either.

Greatest Hits, Volume I

This greatest hits has three songs from three consecutive albums (skipping, of course, his first album), and then everything else is from 1965-1966. There are so many great songs that get passed over on this release, so I'd pass it over, too. It's a waste of money and time, with the exception of "Positively 4th Street," but you can get that elsewhere.

Greatest Hits, Volume II

If you were to get one Dylan "Greatest Hits," this is the one to get. There are so many great songs from a much wider timespan. I can still listen to this "album" on its own.

Greatest Hits, Volume III

This is kind of a difficult one. It was the fourth Dylan release I got when I was younger, and it covers a later time period, from "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," through Dylan's divorce and Christian albums to his somewhat shitty 80's albums. Still, there are some great tracks on it if you're not really interested in delving into the darkness that comes after Street Legal.

3. Dylan by "Genre"

Aside from the last option, this is probably the best way to go. You want to "get" Dylan, but you don't want to invest money and time into every single thing right away. Why? Because Dylan's a bit of a chameleon. He strays from one musical territory into another in the span of a couple albums. Just when you think you have him pegged, you don't. There's a great way to do this chronologically, too:

Folk: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin'

Rock: Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde

Divorce: Blood on the Tracks, Desire

Christian: Slow Train Coming, Saved

80's: Infidels

Old Folk: Good As I Been to You

"Song and Dance Man": Time out of Mind, "Love and Theft", Modern Times

4. The Best Live Rock Performance Ever Captured

You might be thinking, "Jesus, 14 albums!? Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

Yes. Yes I am.

But that's neither here nor there as I can pretty much give you one more option that you can absorb for a while. It is:

This, to me, is pretty much the ultimate Bob Dylan experience. Sure, he's not as "folksy" as he was back in 1963, but this is a concert experience I constantly come back to. 

The first disc is just him and a guitar, which you might think is pretty lame. Yet, when you listen, it's hypnotizing. The man has serious breath control. It's astonishing how he can project the images of his lyrics into your mind and consciousness just with his rhythm. 

The second disc is just balls-out rock and roll. Same concert. And it is because of this "new electric sound," that drives the audience against him. Close to the end, just before the band kicks into "Like A Rolling Stone," listen to an audience member call him, "Judas," just before Bob responds to his own band, "Play fuckin' loud." 

This album is less of a concert than an experience.

Again, Dylan's not for everybody. There's not one thing I can convince you of that will make you like his music the way I do. Say, for instance, you appreciate Eminem more than Woody Guthrie. The closest Dylan ever got to hip-hop, aside from his love of Public Enemy (I'm totally not kidding, either) was two songs from 1965: "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and, "It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding."

Now tell me that's not some proto-hip-hop.

Now if you'll excuse me. A nob has stolen my shirt, and I must laugh to get it back.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Stink

Mikey was a farter. Most children at the age of six are. They love to spray their fog around and just laugh because listen to that sound! Farting was proof that life was funny. As we grew older, the candy and steak and cottage cheese started to rot inside our swelling little bodies and things began to change. We still thought the sound was funny, but the joke was on us as the smell of our own dead bellies began to follow and engage in open mockery. At the dinner table, our parents talked about terrorism. We didn't know the word, but we knew exactly what it meant. In middle school, I danced in front of a girl and farted. I was in a Pinocchio costume. There was rouge on my face. I'll say this again because it needs to be said again: In middle school, while wearing a Pinocchio costume and makeup, I danced in front of a girl and farted. She is attractive and we will never get married. I'm now an adult and less afraid. 

The son has become like the father. It is now beautiful.

As adults, we love farting, because it's a release - because we have to strain and concentrate ALL THE TIME in order to keep from sounding like someone's pinching and pulling the ends of an inflated balloon. I'm amazed we all don't suffer from a rectal prolapse. Don't do it in front of your boss, or your wife, or your dentist, but find an empty bathroom and find peace, find that brief glimpse of enlightenment. The outpouring of emotion becomes the awareness. Catharsis transforms into kensho.

Did you ever watch 80's pro-wrestling? Neither did I. But if you were alive on either side of the 80's, you are aware that there was a pro-wrestler named Hulk Hogan and that before a wrestling match he would do something manly. One of the things he did to prove his worth was to rip his shirt apart with his own hands. You might think that this alone did the job. You would be mistaken. Find some old footage of him doing this and LOOK DIRECTLY INTO HIS EYES AND DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THIS ACTIVITY. Those aren't eyes. Those are the very fires of hell and in them you are captive and chained for eternity. This is how I feel when I pass gas. The legs of my soul bound towards calamity, its eyes unwavering and gleaming as it rends its shirt and I rip the very fabric of space and time. 

But I digress. Mikey was a farter, and the first word I ever taught in Korea was the word flatulate.

At the time of this writing, I have been in Korea for nearly four years. Most of this time has been spent teaching elementary students, but I did have a hagwon gig my first year in the country. 

At the other end of the country, on a small island, there was a hagwon that Mikey attended. 

At a small rectangular table, in small, dark-blue plastic chairs with steel legs, we had class in Chicken room. Megan sat to my left and she had eyes like Mr. Miyagi.

A disappointed Mr. Miyagi holding chopsticks looks exactly like a disappointed Megan holding chopsticks .
Directly across from me sat David. In a class of three students, he was the cool one. 

Last was Mikey, who sat to my right. This seat was nearest to the door, because as I said before, he was a farter. I'm not saying that pushing air out of his ass was his only quality. He had black hair, too. And puffy hamster cheeks. No, that's not right. They were more like ass cheeks. Ass cheek-cheeks. I once saw Mikey eat chocolate and I regret it.

Mikey never passed gas audibly. It always crept into you the same way a nightmare creeps into a dream. Mikey had a smell you could cut, but couldn't kill. It was a smell that clawed back at you, because his day was spent laughing, and eating, and running, and laughing in the bathroom, and 10 minutes went by, and he's out of the bathroom now, but he's sweating for some reason and it's winter, and then - oh, look, he's found some candy.

And yet, despite all this nonsense, I'm absolutely certain it wasn't the food at the hagwon that did this to him. He was definitely eating something at home that was going to kill him...or just make him that much stronger.

Keep in mind that those three children were the brightest for that age group at our hagwon, and because they were always together, they were really close, so they were most likely used to any and all scents Mikey could muster. I, however, was not, and one hot, humid summer's day, I had had enough.

I was teaching, I don't, maybe, and the sun was bearing down on the windows. The air felt tight. Megan found it first. She wrinkled her nose and looked at me like I did it, and then at David. He squinted and rubbed his nose on his arm. Mikey looked sweaty and slack-jawed, like this was an exercise in not releasing everything. I looked back down at the ESL science book as his fart snaked its way up the back of my chair. It curled itself over my shoulders and and gently swept across my nose. The unrelenting sun beat through the room, pushing my face into it. I winced. I sniffed again, hoping it was an odor that would drift away momentarily. It did not drift away. My eyes began to water and my tongue felt unhealthy. Before I had the sense to bring my head away from the science book, I thought, "This is going to make my nose bleed. God Jesus, this hurts." 

I finally leaned back and glanced at Mikey who was smiling. I must have looked hurt, because he started laughing. David was upset and Megan was holding her nose, her eyes on the verge of tears. The culprit was still chuckling when I raised my voice.

"Mikey, that is terrible. That is the worst smell I've ever smelled in my life."

He sobered up.

"Mikey, do you know what that is?"

"Yes, Teacher. It is a fart."

"No - yes. Yes, that's what it is, but don't say that."

I should admit here that I do not like the word fart. Obviously, I'm using it many times in this story because I do not know enough synonyms to replace it. But I just don't think it's an honest word. It doesn't sound at all like the action. Fart sounds more like a hairy bird, or some kind of small cherry. Human flatulence is too complex to assign a word like fart to it. So I taught Mikey another word - a big word.

"Say this: fla - chu - lay -te."

He repeated it three times at my instruction.

"Mikey, if you have to do this again, please say, 'Teacher, I have to flatulate.'"

"Yes, Teacher."

Eventually I learned that not even a step outside the door helped, because he didn't stay outside long enough. 

I eventually had to force Mikey to walk to the bathroom, towards the opposite side of the hagwon. And somehow, it still followed him, like it stuck to his clothes.

Everybody loves to fart. Mikey loved it more than anyone else and that's how he got his dream.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Take it to the MAXICO!

I was reading Brian in Jeollanam-do's blog just now when I came across a short-yet-interesting entry. Don't get me wrong, the guy writes a lot about Korea. I'm not sure what he does that allows him so much time to write so much about the insipid or otherwise goings-on of the peninsula. He seems to be pretty connected to the minutiae of Korean news, but in a country that specializes in that sort of thing, one has to keep abreast of any tingly bit of information...I guess.

The entry is about Geoje-do, Korea's second-largest island that resides off the coast of Busan (an hour and twenty minutes' ferry ride, weather permitting). Before I came to Seoul, I lived on Geoje with Smithy. It's not as English-friendly (as one can see from the placards) as the nation's capital, or even Busan, but it has its charm. I wouldn't say I miss the island, but I do have some fond memories of it. If you read the responses to the entry, you'll find my darlin' doe of a face right there at the bottom, smiling and chirping about the placard under Mexico's flag.

It was an honest misspelling, and I'm sure lots of people have done literary disservice to Mexico's name, but the simple replacement of the e with an a made its indelible mark. Maxico. It sounds like a Korean gas station, a bad movie title, the fourth installment of a post-apocalyptic movie series featuring Mel Gibson. It sounds awful and awesome at the same time.

This entry got me thinking about my time spent as a saute cook in the States before I came to Korea. It was the summer of 2007, I think. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had worked a few jobs at the tapas-style restaurant, but just to clear the air, in case there's anybody blowing smoke, I was a: host, server, dishwasher, barback, prep cook, saute cook, grill cook, and bartender, and there were times when everyone was so in the weeds that I had to leave my station to take on another role, and then another, and move back and forth through job descriptions so everyone could work more easily. I'm not a saint. I just really like working under the influence of caffeine. Afterwards, I often partied just as hard as I had worked.

It was a Friday night and business had been pretty steady, but not so slammed that I couldn't get my station cleaned and take my hour-and-a-half break before I had to come on again as a barback. It was the usual business, so I don't really remember much about barbacking that night except I got a few free drinks at the end of my shift, enough to garner a palpable buzz. My roomies and friends were back at home, drinking, carousing, causing trouble and I was eager to ditch the restaurant to hang out. I got in my car and took the road that I knew would have the least cop cars on patrol. I took the road home some time after 3.

The road home intersects a couple four lane streets, so I still had to be cautious despite my absolute assurance that I would not come into contact with hungry police looking to meet their quota of D.U.I.'s. The first one went well enough, no problem. I passed through a little neighborhood, but when I got to the second, a red light stopped me. Meanwhile, on the intersecting four-lane, a squirt of a sedan was moving too fast. Then it slowed down, not soon enough to turn right, but soon enough to stop right in front of me and block my passage across the street. "Oh, holy shit," I whimpered. "I am gonna die."

The light turned green and the silhouetted driver burst out of the car holding something in his hand. If I panicked, things might have gone horribly awry, so I just took a deep breath and watched him run up to my window. I rolled it down. He was of Hispanic descent, so I assumed he was Mexican, but that's beside the point. The object he was holding in his hand was a beat up cell phone. He gave it to me. The conversation went something like this:

J-Mao: Hello?
Person on the Other End: Who is this?
J-Mao: I'd like to know who this is.
Person on the Other End: This is 9-1-1 Emergency. What's going on?
J-Mao: I have no idea. This guy just stopped in front of me with his car and gave me the phone.
9-1-1 Emergency: Where are you right now?
J-Mao: Um, I can't exactly see the street sign. Hold on, let me get a better look.

I clicked the hazard lights and got out of the car.

J-Mao: I'm at _________ and ________.
9-1-1: We'll send some police right over.

Certainly, wonderful children, J-Mao had found himself in a veritable pickle. I was still outside the car, when a second man emerged from the sedan. Had he been wearing a darker shirt, I might have still been confused when the po-po arrived. As it was, he was wearing a white shirt and blood was oozing out from his stomach. He was clutching the wound with a wincing, panic-stricken face, but blood was still coming out. Moments later, the police showed up. They spoke in English to the men, who became more confused, wary even.

I speak Spanish. Not fluently, maybe not even intermediately, but I spoke a damn sight more than the cops with the gravy mustaches. I had to help. I avoided the easier questions like, "Donde esta la libreria?" "Cual es la fecha?" "Puedo salir el bano?" Instead, while the wounded man was lying on the ground, I came up with some zingers like, "Era una pistola o un cuchilla?" "Donde? A, si. Entiendo. En el estomago?" "Tienes identificacion?" All of these questions the friend answered, crying.

I told the cops what had happened, which was that the man had been stabbed in the stomach at a nightclub and they needed an ambulance. The policeman closest to me radioed for help. Five minutes later, one arrived. While they were loading him on the stretcher, I went up to a police officer and asked if it would be okay if I went behind those bushes because I really had to pee. He looked at me strangely and said, "Okay, go on." When I got back, the wounded man was in the final stages of being loaded into the vehicle. He was shortly carted off.

His friend, still in tears was mumbling, "Mi amigo. Oh, Jesus Cristo, mi amigo." Perhaps it was the excitement, or those few shots and pints I had let myself get into at the bar, but I was feeling a deep sense of camaraderie, walked him over to my car and put my hands on his shoulders, his face burying tears into his already wet fingers, and said to him, "Si. Es todo bueno. La amigo...en la ambulancia. Es bueno." He looked up at me and said, "Si?" I looked back at him and, I'm not making this up, said:

J-Mao: Si. Tu eres mi amigo. Tu eres mi amigo.

He bawled and gave me a hug that would have made his mother jealous. The police told him to go home. He pulled himself together and got in his car. I asked the police if I could just go ahead and go home. They let me. I was careful not to drive too quickly out of there, but as soon as they were out of sight, I gunned my car for the driveway. I had stories to tell.

I learned basic Spanish in elementary school, in a program not completely different from the ones our Korean kids take. The program was mandatory, and poor Senor Acosta still probably has nightmares from having to deal with us, but it made learning Spanish in high school much easier. I eventually dropped Spanish in college and settled on German. Two years after I finished college, and 6 years after my last Spanish lesson, I still knew enough to help someone NOT DIE. Okay, okay...the doctors, ambulance driver, policemen, and 9-1-1 operator did most of the work, but it's shake 'n bake, and I helped.

Is there a moral to this story? Probably, so I'll just take a crack at it. Those initial Spanish classes I took as a kid in elementary school were once a week, and some of us were rotten. But we were just kids who couldn't see the benefit of learning another language at the time. And it's easy to say that teaching English here is a joke, because there are so many of us and kids aren't necessarily bursting at the seams to learn all of our wonderful, candy-coated words because they deal with us two or three times a week. Maybe you can't see the progress your kids are making because they get confused and unsure of themselves...because they're kids. And maybe you'll never see the progress any of your children make, because you're only here for a little while. But maybe, someday, a long time from now, one of your kids will be in the same situation I was in and, having learned the words for knife, gun, ambulance, identification, where, or, and understand, will be able to help out a foreigner's ass, not because he worships the ground they walk on, but because it's the right thing to do.

Just a thought. Another thought: that adventure made me feel like a Maxican!

Editor's Note: I do not condone or support drunk driving. I lucked out, and while I don't necessarily buy the idea of diminishing returns, it would've been only a matter of time until I'd been caught. Don't do it, especially in Korea...unless you're Korean and riding a bike. Then it's comedy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I Think of Esteban

I prefer to stay out of fights that aren't mine. It's one reason I didn't join the armed forces. Dad did. He was a fighter, and I think it's safe to say that he still is, despite the fact that he looks more like a gruff Burl Ives now than he did when he joined the U.S. Navy. I'm hazy on the details, but I'm willing to bet that was in the mid-60's. He told me he got out before Tet in '69, before the shit really hit the fan. So when there was talk of reinstating the draft back when the Iraq War started, Dad told me he didn't want me in the fight. Though it might have been his way of calling me an indoor kid, I really think he mellowed out since having four kids and wasn't really into war after Vietnam and I doubt many vets were into Vietnam after Vietnam.

He and mom came to visit in February this year, a week before my birthday. It was nice of them to do it, and I think they had a great time, though I'm sure they were pretty damn happy to be back on American soil where food made more sense to them. They were good sports about the whole experience, though, and found a new Asian food that they could lust after: mandu. Mandu was Dad's safety food when he didn't know what to order. I had to get a couple extra bags of the frozen kind as a precaution. Mom was a bit more adventurous, ordering everything from bibimbap to dan-hobak juk. I'm just proud of them for not making us eat at Outback Steakhouse, though Dad had mentioned it a couple times.

My parents are, for the most part, pretty conservative. It's how they were raised, and the values they learned from their parents came down to us as we were growing up. My brother and two sisters are pretty conservative. I swing a little more left, mostly to keep things interesting. Mom's mellowing out a little bit, too, politically. This past election marks the first time they didn't vote for the same candidate. While waiting to exchange some money at the bank we had a decent talk about health care. Mom's a nurse, so I felt her opinions were a little more informed than my own.

Inevitably, the issue of immigration came up. My own opinions on this have changed slightly since moving to Korea in 2008. I haven't been here that long, but I get a little edgy when I hear people refer to a foreigner collective as "they" or "them." It's a bad habit that a lot of people, not just Americans, have. My parents were referring to Mexicans, and though I don't think they really have any problem with Mexican people in general, it was easier to parrot the rhetoric that they've listened to for so many years. I told them about Esteban.

Just yesterday, I was browsing through various K-Bloggers' posts, I came to this one by Mr. Wonderful. Being the curious sort, I checked out the links and read pretty much what I expected to find: the collective broken records of foreign ESL bloggers and netizens and their followers having a bitch-fest about who the biggest e-dickheads on the e-peninsula are. Alright, ladies and gents, we'll call it a draw.

I was pretty disgusted by both teams. I got introspective. When I get introspective, sometimes, just sometimes, I think of Esteban.

I was born and partly raised in the Midwest, but spent most of my life in the South. Both regions are generally pretty rural, but only the South has the pockets of Mexican immigrants to employ for its numerous low-wage agrarian or food-service jobs. Consequently, the ubiquitous Americanized Mexican restaurant can be found in most mid-size cities. The dishes in these establishments range from bland to palatable to "fresh-looking," and are reasonably priced, but are essentially Tex-Mex. The truer Mexican restaurants where I come from are found across the tracks in lower income neighborhoods. They are usually close to Mexican run convenience stores or places that sell car accessories and will blow your mind if you're not careful. Order a Mexican Coke or a glass of horchata and dig into a plate of carnitas (slow-cooked pulled pork) or chorizo tacos (ground sausage on corn tortillas with sprigs of cilantro, chopped red onion, Mexican farmer's cheese, and sliced avocado). Splash those bastards with a complimentary lime wedge and you've got yourself a mean damn meal. Sadly, a good portion of Americans will not venture into these places for fear of food poisoning or accidentally becoming tolerant of other cultures. I argue that you can get get food poisoning more easily from a Red Lobster or Macaroni Grill (I've worked in both and have seen awful, awful things) than you can from a mom and pop Mexican restaurant (you will probably also die sooner).

Shortly after college, I got a job at the city country club, working the snack bar for the pool, doing the short-order cook bit. Working with the main kitchen staff and servers was fun, but the customers, their children especially, grew more tedious as the temperature rose. I was glad when summer was over and the pool closed down. I was out of a job, sure, but being a cook has its advantages over being, say, a typewriter repairman. Everybody's gotta eat at some point.

I got a job at a small-scale tapas restaurant downtown, this time as a server. I figured it'd be good to try my hand at getting tips. I did a decent job and pulled in a good chunk of money, but the front-of-house is so much of a gamble that I had to take a later barbacking job to make ends meet. Eventually, I got tired of the front of house and literally jumped when I was offered a chance to be on saute in the kitchen. This is when and where I met Esteban.

Actually, that's not true. I had known Esteban as the fry/pantry cook when I was serving, but working with him in the kitchen gave me a completely different perspective. Esteban was a 50-something-year old Mexican from a town I've never heard of. Though nobody aside from the owner/executive-chef was required to wear a chef's coat, we all did, though Esteban usually supplemented his with track pants and a backwards orange University of Texas baseball cap. Esteban ran circles around everybody in the kitchen, a feat made more impressive when you realize he averaged about 5 hours of sleep every night and his primary job was as the daytime kitchen manager of one of the larger hotels in the city. Every paycheck, he sent money to his wife and younger children still living in Mexico and his plan was to eventually move back to Mexico and retire on this money.

Though he was far from a saint, Esteban worked his ass off and never complained. His station was consistently the cleanest and easiest to navigate, and aside from the days he was still drunk from the night before, he was generally faster and more efficient than the rest of us. Whenever we got really busy, or he had made a mistake, he released a laugh I can only describe as three short bursts of Goofy in a Mariachi band, and every time Esteban let out this sound, I smiled and reminded myself to laugh at the bullshit. His English wasn't great, but it was good enough to catch the jokes we made about customers or the wait staff. He was always jovial and never moody or self-pitying, even if he wasn't in on a joke. He always came to employee get-togethers, got hammered and had a good time doing it. Only once did I see him get visibly upset, when a lower-level stoner kitchen bitch started complaining about Esteban leaving right at 10:30 when the whole kitchen was still a mess after a particularly busy night.

I could say a lot more about Esteban and perhaps I will in subsequent posts, but the reason I think about him more than any other employee from that restaurant is because I am essentially doing in Korea what he did in the States. I am a migrant worker. If you're an ESL teacher in Korea, you probably are, too.

There is a difference, though. Most migrant workers in America do jobs (harvesting produce, working construction, or cooking) that, despite their low level of respect and income, have a more immediate effect. Do you think neurosurgeons picked those organic apples you bought at Whole Foods? And yet, immigrant day-laborers are so close to the bottom rung of American society that many people assume they got into the country illegally. Employers often take advantage of some workers' low level of English to make a buck or supposed legal status to keep them in line. Do those workers that entered legally have a right to complain? Absolutely. ESL teaching is more abstract, yet we get paid higher wages, we buy into the pension and get our money back, we are provided housing, are given a cushy job that takes very little physical effort, have access to the internet, and running water. If we are slighted, do we have a right to complain? Absolutely.

My mom used to tell me about the squeaky wheel and how it gets the oil. Complaining is how we get what we want, and I'd like to imagine that somehow a lot of K-Bloggers or netizens are getting satisfaction in complaining about Korea or elsewhere, as the case may be. If they are, wonderful. If not, then I suspect if the squeaky wheel, after receiving the oil, continues to squeak, it'll just get replaced and none will be the wiser.

I still prefer to think about Esteban's laugh.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Kougars Approach with Caution...

A handful of months ago, I was riding the bus to work with a belly full of coffee and very little else, listening to music just to take it to the next level. I was lucky enough to snatch a seat when I boarded, so passengers at subsequent stops found themselves standing. I didn't feel so bad, since most of them got off the bus after two or three stops. About 5 minutes from school, a lady that got on the bus with me at my own stop approached me. When I say approached I don't mean it in the conventional sense, as in: They approached the Kodiak bear cubs with tranquilizer darts and party hats. I mean approached in the Korean sense of the word. Whether on Geoje or in the city, whenever a Korean has gotten the courage to talk to me on public transport, they've always stood in my comfort zone, nearly brushing my clothes and taking quick glances, sidelong or face-forward. I still haven't gotten used to it.

As I said, this lady approached me and stood next to me as the bus lurched and chugged its way through light traffic. Not being completely oblivious, I noticed and made eye contact. She took this as her opportunity to speak. The conversation went something like this:

Woman: Where are you from.
J-Mao: Mi-guk.*

* For those of you who don't know, Mi-guk (pronounced: mee-gook) is the Korean word for the U.S.A. I usually give this answer for two reasons: 1) so I can practice the little Korean that I know and, 2) so the Koreans asking me don't feel entirely anxious and stupid for trying to engage in conversation with a foreigner. It usually ends up making me feel more awkward in the long run.

Woman: Oh, you speak Korean?
J-Mao: A little.
Woman: (speaking Korean far above the level of which I'm comfortable)
J-Mao: Um...uh...hrm...
Woman: It's okay, I can speak a little English.
J-Mao: Good.
Woman: Are you a teacher?
J-Mao: Yes. Are you?
Woman: Yes. A little.
J-Mao: What?
Woman: A school calls me for teaching. I teach for...small time.
J-Mao: You are a contract teacher?
Woman: Yes.

At this point the woman was getting excited.

Woman: I see you at the bus stop every morning.
J-Mao: (starting to be slightly concerned for my well-being) Do you?
Woman: Yes. What time do you finish school?
J-Mao: The normal time. 5:00. (This is a lie. I get off twenty minutes earlier.)
Woman: Then this Thursday, I would like to eat dinner with you at 5:30.
J-Mao: Okay.**
Woman: Oh! I am going to miss my bus stop. Okay, meet me at this - here at 5:30. Good-bye.
J-Mao: Wait!

** Most Koreans, even those that have lived in English-speaking countries for a couple years, have not picked up on the many contextual meanings of the word okay. I said, "Okay," as an assessment of her invitation. It took me by surprise and I was still trying to get my head around it. She took it as an "Okay! Sure! Let's have dinner together!"

I asked my teachers at work about it later. They were all in agreement that this was indeed a strange thing and I should probably proceed with caution. Wednesday, on the way back home, she was on the bus again. This time, I approached her and asked her why she wanted to go to dinner. She replied, "Because I see you on the bus many times. I do not know you. I also want to practice in English-speaking." Very well. I changed the time and place to one that would work better for me.

The next day was Thursday. All day, I had been worrying and anticipating what this woman's true intentions might be. I created several possible conversation topics that might come up during dinner: "How's your steak - oh, God, my husband's here...", "I've just slipped a powerful sedative into your drink. Tomorrow, you will wake up and play the most dangerous game," "I am your real mother," "I am your real father," "I need you to give me a baby." I never came up with any suitable responses. Work was over and when I got off the bus, I went the back way to my apartment. One can never be too safe, after all, because this world is often sad, and bad things happen when you're not careful. I went upstairs and changed into something more casual and later, met her at my bus stop.

Dinner was Korean/Italian food and not altogether too appetizing, but it was free, so I wasn't complaining. The conversation was slightly drab and I kept hoping or fearing that she would bring up a conversation topic I had anticipated earlier in the day, but it mostly revolved around her life in England, her daughter, opera, music, movies, English language and my level of Korean. Thankfully, none of my fears had been realized, though she often skirted answers to questions about her husband. She paid the bill and we left.

The walk back was saddening. She admitted that she was divorced (which again, raised my suspicions as to her true intentions for the evening), and that her husband had been a drunk. There was some mention of abuse and her daughter. She didn't want to talk about it anymore after that. We made our way through the drizzling rain and awkward chit-chat to her subway stop. She said good-bye and thank you and took the escalator to wherever home was.

I've come to understand that some people are just lonely to want to talk to a complete stranger, a feeling I've never really experienced firsthand. The woman probably chose me because being a single woman with a child in a country that professes the strengths of its married couples is a stigma that not many ladies feel comfortable with, especially when married couples and single Korean men marginalize them.

This first instance was singular, unique, but I've since had run-ins with the Korean cougar (or Kougar) that don't end so melodramatically.

In Korea, there are ubiquitous little neighborhood grocery stores where one can stop and buy everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to tupperware to jarred tea and jams to candy and snacks. They have soap and toilet paper and laundry detergent, beer and bread, fresh tofu, canned tuna, mackerel, noodles and various Korean sauces.. These stores have varied, simple names, but finish with the words super (pronounced: shyu-puh) or mart (pronounced: ma-tuh). In no way are they even close to being what Americans call the "supermarket," but they are handy to have around.

Mostly women operate the various sections of the mart. They are not generally drop-dead gorgeous, but it's obvious that they take care of themselves and often wear heavy makeup and enough hairspray to keep a dead elephant erect for a day's work. They pull in long hours and probably don't get much in the way of awkward English conversation, despite the fact that there is a plethora of native speakers in my building. I make a couple trips a week to the one close by whenever I'm out of ramen, mandu, or whenever I want to cook breakfast for my girlfriend.

One night, while looking through the various greens, I heard a woman's voice. I ignored it, thinking it wasn't directed my way. How could it be? It wasn't even in English. I continued to peruse until I heard her voice again, this time louder and more focused. I looked up and realized it wasn't a shopper, but a smiling female employee of the mart. She was in the vegetable station, labeling mushrooms and bunching perilla leaves (sometimes called sesame leaves) together with pink twist-ties. She looked at me again and asked me something in Korean. Maybe? It was hard to tell: "Sam-ship-ee-eh-yo? Sam-ship-ee-yeh-yo?" I recognized that she was using numbers and then I was really confused until she pointed at me.

Vegetable Kougar: Ee-ship-oh-yeh-yo?
J-Mao: Ee-ship-oh... Oh! A-nee-oh!***

***The woman wanted to know my age. They use Chinese numbers with a Korean pronunciation and her first question was if I was 30 or 32. She aimed lower and asked if I was 25. I told her, "No, I am 28." However, the word 십팔 ("18", pronounced ship-pal) sounds similar enough to 시팔 ("Fuck you", pronounced shi-pal) that I had to be extra careful when telling her that I was 28.

She asked if I was married. At this point, enough people have asked me if I'm married that it's stopped phasing me, except when kids do it, especially when kids do it and chide me for not having gotten married already. I responded that no, I was not married. She then formed this really strange, knowing smile that gave me a slight chill. In addition to asking me where I was from and the usual line of questioning, she told me I was very handsome. I expected her to tell me about her daughter, but no dice. I left the mart that night and have since seen her, but nothing was as strange as that one evening.

I should go ahead and point out that her questions or comments did not bother me. I've heard the "married question" before, and lots of kids, girls and boys, have told me I'm handsome. It was the sense of immediacy and desperation for responses that unnerved me. I didn't know why she was asking. I never know why they ask. They just do. Dirty older women.

My third run-in with a Kougar happened outside of my girlfriend's building, when I was taking Rocket (the dog) out for her afternoon constitutional. The questioning was the usual fare: "Where are you from?" "Oh, you speak Korean." "You speak very well!" "Do you have Korean friend?" "Do you have Korean girlfriend?"

It's this question that got my defenses up, because I knew that I didn't know where this line could go. She then asked me where I lived. I responded. She looked confused and asked me what I was doing in that particular neighborhood.

J-Mao: I'm visiting my girlfriend and walking our dog.
Mountain Kougar: Oh, okay, then! Nice to meet you! Bye!

Dirty older women.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Title Splash: page 10

I've been drawing this comic for nearly a year. It seems I work at a turtle's pace, because I've only been able to average a page per month. Yes, I have been lazy, but finally, after seven pages of exposition and two pages of fake advertising I've hit the title splash.

I'd like to say that it's all downhill from here, but I'd be lying. I can, however, promise myself that I won't be doing any splashes for at least five or six more pages because they require so much more detail than a page full of panels. Counting the advert as two, I've got six splashes total, and that's way too much.

So rather than letting you ask questions, I'm just going to explain a few things...

1) That is smoke coming out the front and back of the car, not bushes.

2) The stuff on the bus that looks like smoke is actually mud (which, if you remember made its first appearance on page 4).

3) The thing that looks like a hole in the bus window is actually the glare from the sun.

Next blog: Taekwondo, Part II (16 Years Later)