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I Finally Wrote About Gangnam Style

14 Nov

Not really.

For as much as hack writers want to make Gangnam Style out to be some brilliant piece of Korean cultural marketing, or a cliche about the rise of a international-looking, tech-savvy Korean youth, it is still just a song:

The song choice is not really the interesting part of the video.  Popular Korean singers have frequently done laidback acoustic covers of manufactured pop hits over the past few years.  It is the girls in the video that are interesting, especially as the video captures a certain difficult, yet wholly special time in their lives, one which they perhaps enjoy, but do not understand the magnitude of the enjoyment until later, when it has long passed.

High school in Korea is unbelievably stressful.  There is immense pressure to study and to perform, not just from one’s parents, but from every aspect of society.  For your average Korean city kid, there is not a moment of the day that is not structured in some capacity.  So to take the time to hang out on a street corner in your school uniform, playing music because you like it, is an unbelievably free act, though simple.  Everything conspires to keep the young Korean miserable, and yet a level of innocence is still there, in spite of it, flowering in the enjoyment of the moment, while a society thinking only of the future flows past on the street around them.

Their fate as Korean girls, though, is perhaps the more melancholy aspect.  They are, right now, being pushed to get into university, to study something practical, to find a good career.  Dress nice, look pretty, to get a good husband.   Maybe their parents are understanding; maybe they will encourage their daughters to study music or the arts.  But that music and art must lead to success — it must conform to norms in order to provide respectability and wealth — they must do their art for a big company.

And thus it is not art at all.  There is no truth, overt, implicit, or revealed, in that kind of practice.

Those girls may want to busk into their adult years, but it will become more difficult.  Even if they do not pursue it as a vocation, seeking to master its art, they will almost certainly have no encouragement for it as a pastime.  They must study, pursue guys, get married, have kids, go to the coffee klatsch to complain about husbands and coupons, take the kids to hagwon, encourage them to succeed.  Those are not abhorrent things, but leave no time, nor spontaneity for something like busking.

The moment in the video, then, is a moment of beauty even more stunning because of its such short life and looming end.  We regard and honor artists who have long lifetimes of work, like Faulkner or Dickens, revering the long and disciplined consistency of art. But we are haunted by the short, intense flame of creation cut short before its time to mature and settle.  For it is not craft that drives the youngest creators, but simply an uncorking of a spirit within, letting it flow out.

True, the song is only Gangnam Style.  But it meant enough to them to try to do it this way, against all those pressures I mentioned.  The missed lyrics, the interspersed laughing, the uncomposed nature of the girls’ performance show that the song, whatever it is, is the vehicle for something greater, that uncorked spirit.  The girls are too, and will be for only a short time.  The spirit may find another vessel, or it may not.

That is why we may be haunted, for truth can only live by our own living, by our own choices.

Leaving Home for Home

1 Mar

I’m leaving, again.  The writing is on the wall, and I’ve got to go.  When I came back to Korea, I thought I’d be here for a while, continuing on as long as I wanted.  But I didn’t expect to reach a limit like this.  I now know I can push and push against that wall, but will, discipline, and perseverance can only move it so much.

What limits?  Korea limits.  Every place does.  Everyone learns to cope with them, wherever they are.  But coping with limits is very different from thriving within them.  When I first came here, I thrived.  I could go in the direction I wanted, for the limits allowed that.  Not any more.  Where I’m trying to get in life is not possible within the confines of this place.  If I was willing to change that existential destination, then I could make this physical destination I’m in work.

But I can’t.  Can’t change that part about myself.  Some value their environment, station in life, aesthetic surroundings the most.  I have always appreciated those things; in fact, it’s what made me come back to Korea.  But there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’d have to leave it eventually.  To stay doesn’t fit with me, who I am.  I want it to, to some degree.  I talk big about the importance of place, tradition, family — if you’ve read this blog, you know.  All those things should by right tie me do somewhere.  And they do, in spirit and values.  But I have difficulty matching that up seamlessly with the choices I have to make to live.  I am a contemplator and a doer.  I think about things and then act on them.  If I can’t act, can’t do what I find to be valuable, important, then my thoughts stagnate.  I start to lose my bearings.  I lose appreciation for the things around me, for they become just background instead of living part of this reality I’m looking at and acting in.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Appreciating a place is to know that you must be able to act in it, yet maybe move beyond it.  It’s not just being there.

But even when you leave a place, it can still stay with you.  It’s in your blood.  Korea got in mine.  I felt enormous frustrations and impatience for the past two months, knowing that this moment was coming.  But I also knew that I would miss this land greatly.

That’s what makes any place a home.  Maybe not one’s original home, but a home all the same.  It takes people to make a home, though.  Family and friends both.  I’ve had both this year, all of the native variety, not outlander transients like myself.  The knowledge that they are here and I will leave makes the departure more complicated.  Because even though I’m going back to where I know I’m from, the place I know in my head is me, there’s still a deep feeling that I’m leaving where I’m supposed to be.

Leaving home for home.  That’s the only way I can think about it.

So I wander, once again, from one home to another.  The road does not always end where we expect it to.  All we can do is hope to find virtue in it if there are but a few more miles to go before we sleep.

The Trees

20 Feb

Whenever my thoughts needs clarity and perspective, some solitude amidst old things always helps straighten things out.  Curiously, I’ve never been to the oldest thing near me in over a year here, almost in my backyard — Suwon Hwaseong Haenggung (화성행궁).  I’ve been all around the Hwaseong fortress wall itself on my bike and explored the labyrinthine neighboors contained within, but never inside the palace, the Haenggung.

In the summertime, when my aircon was broken and I didn’t feel like sitting in a room that was surely growing mold, I’d bike over to the Haenggung at night.  It was always closed, but I’d just sit down and enjoy the lights shining on the front gate, the taegeuk on the front door glowing beautifully.

What I enjoyed the most, though, were the zelkova trees (느티나무) in the front.  They’re claimed to be over 350 years old, which would have put them there well before the palace was even built in 1793.

I like trees in any place because they are the finest living link we have to the past.  They outlast us humans, with our frail bodies and flawed memories.  And yet they are not the dead planks, stones, and mortar of the buildings and artifices which we first associate with our history.  They live, as we live.  In the case of the Haenggung, these trees even outlasted the palace’s original buildings.  The Japanese tore down the palace, but who thinks to tear down a tree?  A tree is no symbol of culture to be eradicated; leave it be; it will enhance the greatness we will build now.  But the tree knows the truth.  It grew and lived before the palace, and would keep on doing so.  It outlasted the Japanese and their visions of empire, silently, patiently growing, living in the face of what went on around it.

On those nights I came here to the spot in the picture above, I found it far easier to imagine than at other historic places in Korea.  I really do think that’s thanks to the trees.  A noble, a porter, a messenger, a coterie of servants and handmaidens, a farmer — any one, or perhaps all of them, could have sat in the shade of the trees in the summer heat.  Perhaps they carried out their business or casual conversations.  Their world, their frame of reference was wholly different — yet they lived under these tall living things that spread their branches.  The tree has witnessed more human lives, more hope and tragedy, more varieties of existence than any of us could ever hope to.  And the tree keeps on living.

The old and veteran of us humans can tell stories of what happened and the ways things were.  But trees cannot speak; they cannot tell us what King Jeongjo sounded like, or what the local people said about him after he had gone away somewhere else.  Yet they enable us to imagine these things.  We think of the trees and how they were, way back then.  They survived and they live.  And with that, even our slightest notions of what is beyond our reality begin gain space to breathe and run free.

All Is Not Lost

12 Feb

It fades, generation by generation, epoch by epoch.  Our peculiar march as men, tramping down straighter and faster paths toward not being men, watches the deep, the integral, the unrecognized but crucial parts of ourselves cast aside like overcoats by the road on a hot day — we needed them before, but right now, on the brightly lit road that we can see for the moment, we don’t.  So we shed our baggage, our encumbrances, to forge on lighter and faster.

Those who scream and rant about the disintegration of things, reminding others of how much better things were in their childhood and how everything is on the wrong paths, have the wrong perspective.  It is not their nostalgia that is wrong.  Rather, it is their frame of view.  True, things have disintegrated since their childhood.  Yet the golden days of their youth were forged from the disintegration of yet a previous era, the pleasures of the present bought by sacrificing the world of the old and already-passed.  And in the generations before that, the foundation for their family’s gradual mobility was bought by mortgaging, whether by choice or not, their old ways, in which time was not an arbitrary division into past, present, and future, but a living, breathing continuation of what was.

But all is not lost.  For one can venture beyond the screaming artifice of neon and PC rooms and Olleh WiFi and Prugio luxury apartments, and find this:

The grandmother and her granddaughter sit at her house, folding the towels by hand.  Modernity is here, visible or not.  Synthetic cloth; running shoes; machine-woven towels made white with chemical bleach; perhaps even the logs under the house were run through a pneumatic splitter instead of being chopped by an axe.  But the old house is still kept well, as it always has been.  The stones are neatly set, the fibrous paper backing the door free of holes, the courtyard made of crushed stone, not poured concrete.  The two women fold by hand.  No machine nor specialty delivery service does it for them.  They themselves must take up the task and do it completely, do it well.  No technology has stripped away their toil by adapting to them instead of they to it.  The basic physical movements inherent to humanity’s long experience with daily living are still there, protected, at least for now.  Genome revitalizing drugs, robotic enhancements, brain-wave reading digital paper, the Singularity: all these things and their terror are coming.  But they are not here yet.  And so all is not lost, not yet.

All is not lost.  All that is ourselves, our true selves, has faded and many parts disappeared entirely, beyond our recall or care.  But some remains, within us in fact or within our reach, should we choose to stretch out our hand to it.

All is not lost.  That is not hope in and of itself.  Hope is not fuzzy feeling, nor wishful thinking, nor contentment to apprise and merely remark.  There is only hope in acting.  We see hope in the phrase “all is not lost” only because there must be some thing that is not lost and that it is recoverable.  Yet one must look for that thing, find it, take it up again as if nothing had happened, not for the demands of the moment, but for its own original purpose.  We must look to our past, and the intersection of our selves with it, not to satisfy our political dissatisfactions, our societal critiques, our cultural grumblings, our paranoia over the stability of the whirring world.  Rather, we must immerse ourselves in that past as if there was no severance with it, no disruption.  For to use the past merely as criticism is to concede the victory to the world that has occurred.  Nothing is written; things could have gone differently.  Take up what they before us saw as our purpose, take their vision as our own with the full knowledge that it is ours by inheritance, fully, completely, with no justification needed.

All is not lost.  And nowhere is that more true than in a small Korean village, by a river, the smell of wood smoke strong in the winter air.

Alien by Choice

4 Feb

I hiked Inwangsan the other day.  It was a surprisingly quiet mountain, considering how close it is to the downtown regions of Seoul.  I thought that surely it would be swarmed with middle-aged power hikers elbowing everyone else in their blitz to the top.  But I saw perhaps only a few dozen people all day.  One of them stopped me on the trail and struck up a conversation.  When a Korean stops you to speak in English, you know it’ll either be funny, perhaps even endearing, or annoying, bordering on creepy.  But you’re almost always guaranteed to get a story out of them.

“Hi, my name’s Kim.  Are you from the US?”

I found out why Kim was interested.  The thin-haired Korean showed me his green card.  Been in the States since ’82, but never naturalized.  I didn’t ask him why, because he kept talking a mile a minute about living up and down the West Coast.  He kept asking me if there were mountains like Inwangsan in America.  By that, he explained, he meant with lots of rocks.  I told him there were, but he didn’t seem to believe me.  “There aren’t any on the West Coast.”  Well, I would have thought that 30 years in the US would have taught him that there’s just about every landform imaginable.  I insisted there were, but he didn’t seem to have heard me and kept saying, “Ah, but there’s no paths like this.”

He kept repeating over and over that he’d grown up here.  But it took a few minutes before it was that he meant here, right next to Inwangsan.  “I lived here for 13 years,” said Kim.  “I used to walk up part of the mountain when I was a kid.”

He pointed down the mountain toward the construction barricades visible in the picture below.  “That was my apartment building. The Ogin-dong (옥인동) Apartments.  They tore it down now, the Korean government did.  I grew up there.”

“Do you know how much they cost?  The apartments, do you know how much they cost?  Ah . . . ah . . . ah, in 1970 . . . two thousand dollars.  Yes, two thousand dollars to own a 500 square foot apartment.  The smallest kind.”

He rambled on about something else as the sun continued dropping and the temperature along with it.  He somehow made it back to his point.  “Two thousand dollars in 1970.  And the Korean government is reclaiming the land.  It’s very valuable.  Now they pay . . . for the 500 foot apartments, you know, the small ones . . . three hundred thousand dollars!  Three hundred thousand . . . oh, that’s a lot of money.”

He then rambled on about random places he’d been around America, his glass tinting business, his Korean friends and family back in America, his father’s disaster in an ice storm.  Kim even came back to the topic of the mountain, asking the same questions again.  He kept talking on and on, but I listened anyway.  He was one of the fellows who either doesn’t know when to end a conversation, is lonely and starved for conversation, or might be a tad on the mentally unstable side.  Perhaps a slight touch of all three.

“I’m thinking about moving back here,” he said.  “The economy in America is pppffffffffffttttttttt.”

Eventually, we parted ways and he directed me the right way to get down, headed toward Gwanghwamun.

I’m thinking about moving back here.  His words stuck in my head as I descended Inwangsan.  How quickly things can change.  His parents probably struggled to escape poor ’60s Korea and were thankful to do so.  That’s the Korean Dream in large part — getting the hell out of your own country, while not assimilating too much into another culture so as to become a ‘bad’ Korean.

Kim had never naturalized himself in the States, even after 30 years, and now, when he looks at the hand the world deals him these days, he thinks about doing what perhaps his parents had fantasies of but never truly expected — going back to Korea.  And now Kim’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen looks like a smart move to him.  He’s still got the Korean passport; though his whole frame of reference is the United States, he lucked out on how he played this hand and can move back to Korea with ease, where the economy is good, the crime is less, and the people walk everywhere, as Kim pointed out.

But is it his home?  After all, his parents, brother, friends still live in America.  He wants to come back to what is nominally his homeland, but after being away since he was 13, how much does he really identify with it?  All he knows is his perception that America is pppfffffffffftttttttt, as half-formed as his notions of American geology, and his feeling that somehow this place, Korea, is the future.

What kind of future, with whom, for what end — well, those things didn’t seem to weigh on him.  I wanted to castigate him in some regard, but after some thought, I couldn’t.  After all, am I, or others like me, that much different?   I jumped to the other side of the world for a job, for adventure, to just get away in a certain sense.  My time has been a couple years, his longer.  At some point, perhaps arbitrary, one makes the shift from being a temporary interloper like myself to a permanent exile of one’s own choice.  But are our ends, our methods that much different?  Aren’t we both gaming the system?  Kim is not really that much different from me and my English ability which I did not work for and my passport which I did not earn but grants me the freedom to jump about and be respected anywhere I go.

Searching for the 마을 bus, I found the construction barricades and the spot where Kim’s old apartment building had once stood.  There will surely be a new, taller, sleeker one in its place, crammed with more people than before.  I wonder, what will those who grow up there be like?  Will they end up like Kim and me?  Biding their time with one eye on the look out for the next leap to be made, never existing fully in a single reality, but always guessing, planning, trying to game the system to jump to the one that looks better, only to find themselves doing so again?

Perhaps this is a necessity for survival in this modern, globalized world.  Perhaps we cannot fault ourselves for the ways and views set within us, recognized only once beyond the point of altering them entirely.  But that does not strip away the harsh fact that, as long as we act like this, we are homeless people.  Us as homeless does not mean we are without land, state, plenty, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.  Rather, it is the fact that none of those things coalesce into a larger whole, a home.

Pity us not, though, for it is our choice.  We love the journey, the change too much.

Existential Geese

26 Jan

“Why is it that so many foreigners want to learn Korean?”

My girlfriend’s question struck me as a tad silly.  I mean, it’s her damn country, shouldn’t we be learning her language?

“Well, many of them are interested in living here,” I said.  “Not just for a short period or for study, but actually residing here for a long time.”

“Why?”  She was incredulous.

Indeed, why?

Ironically, the answer was right in front of me, between the pages of the magazines that lay on the coffee shop table.  You see, go into just about any chain coffee shop in Korea and you’ll find well thumbed stacks of magazines showcasing the best that money can buy.  For pure material indulgence, there’s Luxury and Muine, for your international hipster fashions there’s Cracker, but those are only worthwhile for showcasing Koreans’ avarice for anything foreign, without regard for taste, worth, or restraint.  The real evidence for my argument lay in magazines like M25 and, most of all, The Bling.

Thumb through the pages of the latter magazine in particular and you’ll see loads of pictures from the hottest clubs and the latest DJs spinning in Seoul and perhaps a couple of other places around the peninsula, as well as a spotlight on some other Asian venue.  Many of those in the photos could have been modeling for the other magazines: Muine if you’re an upmarket-oriented 된장녀 looking to hook the whisky-swilling sugar daddy at the corner booth or Cracker if you’re a bobbing and weaving student in over-priced vintage clothes and tattoos of ligament-wrapped skeletons.  But there are a lot of young, especially Western, foreigners in those pictures.  A lot.  All are partying it up and clearly loving the attention the photographers are lavishing upon them.

Now perhaps the photographers, because of their focus on capturing foreigners on film, distort the actual number of foreigners present relative to their numbers in the general population of Korea.  But, in a certain sense, the numbers themselves, or the perception of the numbers, is irrelevant.  Regardless of actually how many foreigners like myself there are clubbing it every weekend in Hongdae, Gangnam, or Sinchon, their very centralness to the reporting on the club scene is indicative of how they perceive themselves, which is inextricably linked to what Koreans expect of a good club.

Koreans value greatly the blue-chip credibility of foreign endorsement; I don’t think I need to write any long exposition on that subject.  Thus it makes sense that Korean media would want to emphasize the presence of foreigners at an event, for it makes a strong appeal to the 20s and 30s Korean globally-conscious set.  Yet that also makes foreigners think that this is their scene, that they are an integral part of it, that it exists in part for them.  I don’t know how many expats here actually read The Bling or similar publications, so it’s hard to gauge how much the magazines themselves influence foreigner perceptions.  But the act of the photographers seeking out foreigners themselves in the clubs, to take their picture in sexy poses or wielding a bottle of Jaegermeister like a stick grenade, makes it clear that they are valued.  Adjacent Koreans jump in and throw up a two-fingered peace sign or perhaps copy their foreign photo buddy and give the camera The Shocker.  It doesn’t even matter if the photo makes copy in the magazine — the very act of capturing the subject creates a (false) sense of worth.

That feeling of being up on a pedestal combines with the effects of absorbing aspects of Korean culture, whether one intends to or not.  Even most intransigent foreign transients who are not interested in assimilating end up appreciating some parts of Korea — bulgogi barbecue, K-pop, whatever.  I hear foreigners all the time spice up their own language with Korean — it’s not because they are really multilingual and can’t divide the two tongues in their brain, but rather because they think it’s cute or endearing, like it makes them a part of a club without having the pay the dues.  But they do pay dues, whether they realize it or not.  Many of them succumb to the Korean notion that there is only the top or the bottom, that there is no acceptable middle ground.  I noticed this when my girlfriend either spoke constantly of being ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’  There was no idea of being satisified with a middle-class stature.  That’s just a stopping point on your way up or down.  Many foreigners end up adopting, even if only slightly, this Korean habit of viewing everything as a win-lose, zero-sum game through osmosis totally unaware.  They start thinking, “I’ve got to be on top.  I’ve got to be at the best clubs, on the best days of the month.  I’ve got to look the best, have the best time, and hook up with the best people at the end of the night.”  They feel the need to establish themselves in the hierarchy of foreigners here, as the ones who have figured out this strange land, mastered it, made it their own.

Oh, is this what you mean by 'experiencing a rich culture'?

That effort is nothing short of pathetic.  It mimics the Korean trait of exalting the place at the top of the pyramid, but in a different fashion.  Koreans climb the pyramid to finding prestige and security within their own hierarchical society, for those are advantages easily passed on to one’s family or social hangers-on, thereby further increasing one’s worth and especially material well-being in old age.  But foreigners exist outside that hierarchy.  Despite the constant grumblings and rantings by long-term expats, Korea is not going to become an open-to-all, multicultural society, where everyone from anywhere can lounge about in a paradise of Western values.  Nor should it.  So foreigners, cut out of following the normal avenues, must gauge themselves by a totally different standard.

That standard is a combination of both the expat society, existing in large part parallel to Korean society, as well as the society which each expat left in their home country.  Air travel and digital communications has transformed not only the ability for people to go anywhere or experience anything from a distance, but also enabled them to do so without actually giving up anything about where they came from.  You can live in Korea and, through Facebook, Skype, your RSS blogfeed, etc, continue to participate in your own culture almost as if nothing had happened.  So, for a foreigner here, if you can’t join Korean society, you’ll just judge yourself in comparison to a) other foreigners here and b) your own culture and relations in your homeland.

Thus you go out to the clubs, pushing yourself to get a more ‘authentic’ ‘Korean’ club experience than those other foreign schmucks you work with.  And you imagine you are at the top when some skinny Korean dude with a V-neck undershirt, a Mets cap, and gauged earrings, brandishing a Nikon for the club’s PR department, seeks you out and snaps pictures of you grinding on some random Australian chick in red pleather go-go boots.

But the picture is only complete (and, in circuitous fashion, I return to my initial point) when you make these habits a qualitative judgement upon the culture across the ocean that you never really left.  You say, “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t get stuck in Atlanta/Auckland/Hamburg/Lyon/Manchester/Melbourne.  Seoul is just so happening . . . like, even more than Tokyo.  It’s a great lifestyle.”

Lifestyle.  That’s all that it comes down to.  Not a better life, mind you — we’re not talking about Sierra Leone refugees finding some haven where people won’t chop off their hands; Korea actually admits very, very few people into political asylum — but a lifestyle.  Tens of thousands of people moving across the globe not in search of liberty, freedom of conscience, or religious practice, but for their own personal indulgence.  There is no deprivation for these foreigners who come from developed countries.  They could find a club in Atlanta or Melbourne, but choose not to.  The club, party, dining scene is ‘better’ here and they have travelled far to get it.  They ensconce themselves in it, think they have found authenticity in what is virtually the same as what they left, and, through their perceived mastery of a new life, establish themselves as superior to all their friends back at home who must toil on, ‘stuck’ in their hometown and all its terrible deprivation.

Thus the foreigner across from us cuts his hair like a Korean, dresses like a Korean, and studies the Korean language, because he thinks that all this is his, that he can enter into it.  For, coming from a Western country, he operates under the illusion of equality, that all things are open to him because, well, they should be.  He thinks that skin color, facial structure, blood, culture, history, language are all malleable constructs, that he can transcend them.  He thinks that this land can be his, that he has a right to be here because he chooses to be here, as though the choice was his all along, a pure act of will on his part.

He and his kind are not colonialist, though many of their attitudes are unconsciously the White Man’s Burden mashed several times through a progressivist strainer.  Rather, they are merely existential geese.  They flit about, migrating from one little spot to another, honking to each other about which pond is bigger or better, never remaining but always thinking that wherever they touch down is theirs, claimed by nothing more than frantically paddling feet and nasally squawks.

Three Nights in a Jjimjilbang

25 Jan

I recently did some venturing about Korea, not for any terribly specific reason other than I wanted to ride around on trains a lot.  I decided to check out Andong, for I’ve heard it’s an intransigently Korean place and I like intransigent stick-in-the-muds.  Being short on cash, I decided to sleep in a jjimjilbang, like many Koreans do when they travel.

Normally I’m rather averse to marinating myself in the various bodily fluids, bacteria, sloughed skin, and expectorate of total strangers, but I decided to give it a try.  For I’d recently gotten a blood test and my Hepatitis B antibodies turned out to be naturally almost four times higher than an ordinary vaccinated person.  I felt lucky.

Andong Oncheon

Once I got in and started looked around Andong Oncheon, the jjimjilbang pictured above, I was kicking myself for not having come to one of these places sooner.  I mean, a shower, water from a hot spring (the meaning of 온천), sauna, baking yourself inside a kiln, roasting your back on lava rocks, freezing yourself in a room lined with ice-encrusted pipes, plus a restaurant, PC room, DVDs, a space on the floor to crash — all for 7 bucks — 7 bucks — how is anything wrong with this picture?  I was to discover later, though, that there was.

It being winter vacation, there were a lot of college students traveling and nearly all of them seemed to be using these establishments for their lodging.  With a small bookbag, most of them were just bouncing around on week-long cheap train passes, trying to see as much as possible.  I talked with several of them.  Two young guys, one with a glistening cubic zirconia earring, playing hwatu together on the mat next to me, had just finished their second year of university, which meant that it was the customary time to do their compulsory military service.  Except the Military Manpower Administration wasn’t sure whether they would send these two off in February or March or when.  Ear Ring Kim’s parents lived in Hong Kong and had insisted that he go to university in Daegu so his grandparents could keep an eye on him.  Well, he wasn’t having any of that right now.  He and his friend were just going to kick around the country doing whatever they felt like until the military let them know when it was time to report for training.  Nice guys, as most of the people there seemed — a real family establishment.  I felt fairly comfortable.  Actually, I almost always feel far less ill will for my skin color outside the main urban areas.  Usually country people look at me as a curiosity instead of with suspicion or loathing.  One big-nosed, leather-skinned rustic on the train even made the effort to catch my attention and give a wave and smile as he got off at a rural station.  It is indeed the people you meet that make or break any physical place you come across.

But the most, shall we say, memorable character at the jjimjilbang was the ajeossi in the hot pool.  He had surprisingly tan skin all over.  His hair was unusually curly on top and suffered from a orangish hue, making him look like a Korean Jerry Stiller.  He made his way to the corner reclining section of the big bubbling warm pool, which I too stood in, albeit on the opposite side.  He laid down and I lost track of him, zoning out for several minutes.

When I came back to the present, I happened to glance across the pool.  The orange-haired old guy lay in his corner, but was looking about with a wide-eyed, almost paranoid look.  I saw his arm moving back and forth and some movement down by his crotch.  Gross, I thought, that old dude’s cleaning himself in this pool.  It seemed odd, but, then again, there were naked grown men over in the shower room scrubbing each other’s backs with rough cloths.  It’s Korea, after all, and things are just different in a lot of ways.  So I brushed it off.

But I kept feeling the old guy’s stare flitting about the room like a schizophrenic lighthouse beam.  No one else seems to notice him, but he’s still glancing around nervously.  Looking back over, I see that the man’s former motion is continuing, only at a more frantic pace, and a certain part of his anatomy has, by this point . . . emerged . . . from the water.  It suddenly struck me that this weird looking ajeossi was gratifying himself in a public pool.  And I was sitting it the same water.

I stood up immediately and climbed out of that pool without a second look.  I went into the sauna, shut the door, and sat down.  No way I’m getting back in that pool, I thought.  The heater next to me banged and clanged and I sat, wondering if this was normal behavior in a jjimjilbang and if anyone else had seen it.  But no one makes conversations in the jjimjilbang.  You sit there and avoid eye contact as you sweat and scrub.  So I was left with the mystery all to myself.

Those who wander seek out authentic experiences, ones which illuminate either the universal or the particular.  We want a full spectrum of experiences, a broad, diverse array that will enable us to both make generalizations.  But on occasion you see something that just leaves you at a loss, that fails to fit into any preconceived categories you have or can be considered a rare outlier that conforms nonetheless in its own way.  Just because you spend three nights in a jjimjilbang doesn’t mean you’ll see the same thing that I did.  And that, my friends, is why you keep your eyes open, even if sometimes you wish you hadn’t.