Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stepping Into the Rearview Mirror

First of all, I'm plagued with a bit of sadness to know that this may be my final entry in this Korea blog. At the very least, almost certainly it will be the last one I write from this amazing place. Although really, similar notions have been considered several times before. And undoubtedly - once a writer, always one. Probably. So fear not, dear Reader! You can't get rid of me that easily..

Upon my return to Asia, the first question on everyone's minds was a take on "so after living over here for 2+ years, what has recently been the biggest shock/difference/coolest/most interesting thing about home?". And my answer to any version of that inquiry, in order of degree, was: 1) operating vehicles and other machinery, 2) the prevalence of weapons, and 3) food and beverage options. And of course, incidentally, family and dogs, gun-related crimes and homicides, and the global obesity epidemic.

You see, I had finally left Korea 6 months ago for what was to be... well, forever. But since that departure, I have been constantly nagged by a reminder to make good on a promise to myself and friends to return to this side of the world someday soon.

I can't seem to shake the idea that there is something insanely innocent and pleasingly magical in a place where the number of cornerstore coffee shops is greater than the combined square footage of all the McDonald's restaurants, inhabitants wear scripted tshirts while having no clue (or obvious care) the meaning of its words, a medical exam - including diagnosis and treatment - costs a mere $9 for an uninsured ear, and the general population is unable to ascertain the difference between a 30-something average American guy and the - nearly decade his senior - British heartthrob, Jude Law.

Back to the task at hand:
It's a unique and indescribable feeling to know that an incredible era of life has come to an end. It's weird to look back on it. And the strangeness is all the more intense when you reenter that space after a time - and feel that same place, smell its smells, observe the familiarity and the unquestionable novelty. And most of all, you confirm the reality that things will never be what they were during the glory days that you so admire. I imagine that the emotions involved in this process are equal, regardless of the particular circumstances - whether that period for you was positive or negative, unbearable or fun, easy or forgettable, worthwhile or difficult, draining or fulfilling. Personally, the two years that I spent in Korea provided a brief glance into all of those things.

Analyzing the mirror and its reflection is always just as much scary or unsettling as it is exciting or englightening. And a basic understanding of the human mind shows us why this is so. It doesn't take a doctorate in psychology to see that we are all VERY good at dissecting the past and even inevitably second-guessing ourselves.

Through this experience, I'm reminded of at least two self-created traps that we set for ourselves: regret and the longing for permanence. Relating to the former, I believe that there are very few things in our individual histories that we should feel sorry for either doing or passing up. In fact, guilt stemming from either scenario can be equally useless or damaging. Sure, in hindsight there will always be missed opportunities or chances neglected. But try to imagine how skewed the present would be, had even one small decision been made differently or an entire course if action been steered another way. Further, there fails to be an accurate value measurement for anything imaginary or nonexistent! So how could we ever make a comparison, when only one occurrence exists? Armed with this knowledge and being confident that we lived fully and to the best of our abilities, why then should we ever be less than satisfied with our current reality or the person we have become? Under this prism, regretfulness becomes a tremendous waste of time and energy.

As for the unchanging nature of people, places, and situations...guess what? Don't believe it for a second, because the prospect is an utter falsehood. In this sense, clinging to an outdated ideal of what something WAS won't get you very far. Permanence is reserved for the past and above all, things are what they are moment by moment. And undeniably, people will change, acquire new commitments and interests, and/or move entirely. Thus, places evolve and landscapes morph.

In this way, the same circumstances, variables, and their combinations will never meet in the exact way they have more than once. Let's even say that we should meet with the same exact group, in precisely the same setting, all the extras and situations are the exact same, and the surroundings oddly haven't changed a bit. Even then, something has - without a doubt - grown or shifted or been altered. As you can surely guess, that is the most important person, and coincidentally, the only one we have the ability of controlling: OURSELVES! And so it becomes quite apparent that lightning will never strike in the same place, with the same strength, in the same manner twice. In actuality, it was quite unlikely that it actually ever happened at all. So be glad for the thunderstorm; that the skies somehow, someway, and for some reason chose your feet as a target; and that you obviously had the wherewithal to survive, possibly even thrive, through it all. In spite of all of these storms, or perhaps ultimately essentially because of them, we transform into the people who we are today. And I hope that's never regrettable.

The King of Pop put it best when he recommended where to start improving the world. And no message could have been any clearer.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Templestays: More Than You Might Anticipate

The following was originally an article written for a Korean website:

Peace. Relaxation. Excellent food and the creation of it. Observation and appreciation of natural beauty. Unique and stimulating activities. Cultural, social, and religious education. Opportunities to learn new things and to exercise that knowledge.

Yes indeed, there are countless reasons for attending a weekend (or even longer, if desired) templestay - and if you visit or live in Korea, you’ve come to the right place. This richly beautiful country has been considerably influenced by Buddhist culture (which was originally introduced by the Chinese nearly 2400 years ago), and hence, temples and templestay programs abound.

Throughout its significant history, Korean Buddhism has always been slightly unlike other forms of the religion. Not unexpectedly, the beliefs and practices here have been a combination of Korean culture’s own specific history and related philosophies with a newly introduced belief system. This blending resulted in a distinct variation in what is now called 통불교 (tongbulgyo).

Fortunately, you needn’t be an expert in either theology or cosmology to appreciate the true value of a templestay (although a basic understanding can never hurt). Buddhists are notorious for their friendly and welcoming demeanors, and this reality provides for a fantastically open and inclusive environment on a templestay. Perhaps, it might very likely be preferred that a visitor be mostly uninformed of Buddhism and their traditions.

Also, rather honestly, a lack of familiarity promotes a sense of curiosity that will allow for a more inquisitive spirit on your stay at a temple. A newcomer will constantly be filled with questions about the foreign sights and goings-on.

Each individual templestay is incomparable and every program offers different activities. However, some common themes are pervasive: gorgeous architecture and scenery, ample meditation time, various arts and crafts – most certainly including prayer bead (mala) making, and food preparation and consumption.

In a turn of irony, while one main aspect of a temple seems to be relaxation, to accommodate for the many activities of a templestay, the schedule can be quite rigorous. One certainty, following any (possibly a little bit uncomfortable) evening of sleeping on the floor, expect a very early wake-up call to greet the dawn. Keep in mind that Buddha waits for no one:

You will frequently be tired and groggy. You will repeatedly sit in the cross-legged lotus position until your knees ache. You will hike for hours and perform dozens of full prostration bows until your back feels like it can’t take any more. You will be asked to remain silent for the probably the longest you’ve done so in a very long time. You will very possibly get annoyed when your art project doesn’t come out the way you envisioned it. But don’t give up - it will make that last tea ceremony feel all the more earned..

While a bit of frustration and/or confusion are natural reactions when confronted with new challenges, an attitude of openness and willingness will greatly improve your experience. Remember that you will be a guest of the temple in which you’re visiting, and so it’s highly recommended that you approach your stay in a way that recognizes the generosity of your hosts. Afterall, many people throughout the world contend that a temple’s primary objective is to teach us tolerance and acceptance.

You should definitely feel exhausted at the end of your adventure, but most of all, overcome with a great sense of accomplishment and enrichment. Though you may initially set out with a simple goal of exploring the unknown in an unfamiliar setting, without a doubt, the templestay experience will leave you with a greater understanding of something. Quite possibly yourself.

-      Written by Matthew Gay

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Expat-turned-Backpacker's Lessons Learned

I'm aware that writings in list form are often overdone, but the following are a few important expressions/quotes/mottoes that I think are worthy of remembrance. I've gathered most of these previous to recent adventures, but namely my stints in the education field have taught me that any lesson must be learned several, if not many, times before it becomes memorable and/or eventually useful. Some of these are literal, some figurative, some tongue-in-cheek or purely joking, others dead serious, or any various combinations. A few of them are my words, many I've given credit to a more appropriate source, but very few are original thoughts or ideas. In fact, I'm sure none of them are...

1. Never forget who you are, where you've been, and at least a rough idea of where you're going.

2. No matter how seemingly genuinely nice and helpful a tour guide appears, don't forget to keep their potential motives in mind.

3. Although, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

4. Anyone and everyone is a tour guide.

5. Transportation legroom is inversely proportional to tiredness.

6. "I need you to hurry up now, 'cause I can't wait much longer." -Kanye West

7. 900+ year old ruins are pretty cool.

8. It's always a good idea to settle expectations upfront to avoid feeling let down afterwards.

9. Always know your expectations.

10. 1 USD is always more valuable, anywhere, than its equivalent in another currency.

11. Initial price is relative to the concerned parties, their relationship up to that point, and their individual moods precisely at the time of transaction.

12. Never forget what you learned from homework.

13. Make sure you got the correct assignment and completely finish your homework. It'll only benefit you. Just when you need it.

14. Everyone's a student.

15. A smile isn't always friendly & doesn't necessarily entail caring.

16. Never underestimate the value of a trustworthy local.

17. Learn, and always REMEMBER, to say hello.

18. Don't let the past ruin the future for you. Learn the lessons you need and move forward.

19. "Don't look back in anger." -Oasis

20. Always remember the contents of your pockets. You know, the walls have eyes.

21. Tonal languages are really difficult.

22. Take care of yourself. You're the person in the best position do it.

23. Facebook is awesome everywhere in the world.

24. Don't let one good experience hold you back from another opportunity. Afterall, you may enjoy the other thing even more.

25. There aren't ever enough seconds in a minute, minutes in an hour, hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, or months in the year.

26. Sometimes air-conditioning is invaluable.

27. The required amount of water for the human body is directly correlated to the number of degrees above 29C.

28. While there, remember the reasons that you went to that place.

29. You will always be as happy, or otherwise, as you think you will be.

30. Not all hotels are created equal.

31. When riding on the back of a motorcycle: the more free hands, the better.

32. Even when creating and receiving familiar sounds or symbols, your conversation partner is not always speaking the same language.

33. The fun factor of being sick isn't positive anywhere you go.

34. Rivers are elementally interesting places.

35. You never end up exactly where you expect, and that's usually a good thing.

36. Comfort is subject to Murphy's Law.

37. Don't judge a book by its cover.

38. Discomfort builds character. So they say.

39. The design, engineering, and manufacturing of fans are truly impressive.

40. Technology works as well as, and in the manner that, you think it does.

41. Alright functions as hello anywhere in the United Kingdom.

42. It's astonishingly easy to fake a landmine injury.

43. Independent consultants are always more interesting than the alternatives. But they aren't necessarily better.

44. Strike while the iron is hot.

45. People on vacation, especially in coastal areas, are inherently laid-back.

46. Too much relaxation isn't always a good thing.

47. Everything has it's time or season.

48. Being able to perform basic math calculations (quickly) is preferred. And either doing so or not doing so is equally frustrating.

49. The night time is the right time. But circumstances also dictate appropriateness and suitability.

50. Everyone's exotic to someone. Somewhere.

51. Fishing is what it's cracked up to be.

52. Gambling isn't.

53. The milkshake machine isn't necessarily broken, and the 'mix' isn't necessarily 'out'.

54. Sometimes, people are just nice for no reason at all.

55. Seafood in a land-locked region is weird.

56. Injuries always take longer to heal than you imagine.

57. Hindsight is earned, and is a valuable trait.

58. Volunteers might say or appear so, but probably aren't lacking in resources.

59. The simplest way to make money is to keep what you already have.

60. Those actually in need probably can't tell you.

61. 'Native experiences' are nice, but usually overrated.

62. The most effective tools are usually the ones easiest to find.

63. You can exercise anywhere. But you don't have to.

64. People are people. For the most part.

65. Don't expect too much out of yourself or others - and that way you'll always be pleasantly surprised with whatever happens.

66. 97% of the time, water and/or sleep are the best medicine for anything that ails you.

67. An object in motion remains in motion, and similarly, an object at rest remains at rest, until an outside force is applied. -originally Galileo's concept of inertia, and eventually Newton's First Law of Motion

68. You can do whatever you want to do. But you should also understand the potential consequences ahead of time.

69. Across the board, Occam's Razor applies and things typically are the way they seem.

70. When in doubt, animals will always bring a smile to a child's face.

71. Physics 101: That which goes up must come down, and consequently, that which goes down must come up.

72. Thank you is appreciated in any language.

73. Zippered pockets are usually the most effective first line of defense.

74. Go out of your way to meet locals wherever you go - you'll never be disappointed.

75. Don't take anything, especially yourself, too seriously.

76. Batteries reach full discharge mode at the most inopportune times.

77. Even if someone may be small and poor, they can have an amazingly high tolerance for alcohol.

78. That which should be universal is usually the first thing not to be so.

79. Vocabulary isn't required to be persuasive.

80. Con artists come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and ages.

81. "We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors.." -Rainer Maria Rilke

82. Cambodian children only own one set of pants and underwear, and no shirts. And of the former, both are perpetually in the wash.

83. Left to their own devices, trees get very old.

84. 'What's your name?' is always a simple way to begin a conversation.

85. The romanized 'Th-' spelling in THailand wasn't a mistake.

86. Pol Pot targeted people just like himself: idiots.

87. Americans are rich.

88. Everyone is well-endowed in some way(s).

89. Taxi is understood everywhere.

90. Don't fear giving or generosity. Many more people need resources much more than you do & will put them to better use than you ever could.

91. Once in a while, you need to be taken for a ride.

92. Young animals of any type are invariably cute.

93. Be slow to anger. But in some cases, remember that eventually getting there is important.

94. Watching sunrises and sunsets is good for the soul.

95. Robbery is the oldest and highest art form.

96. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." -Franklin D. Roosevelt

97. Mosquitoes suck.

98. Travel guidebooks are useful, but are neither the only nor the best source of information.

99. All people enjoy some or all of the following: shirts, books, postcards, and magnets.

100. A proper hat is just what you need.

101. A group's picture-taking capacity is endless.

102. If time travel existed, we probably wouldn't even know about it.

103. Accents are intriguing, frustrating or not, and deceiving.

104. There's a huge variety of jobs out there.

105. Wondering 'what if..' might be a natural thing to do, and may or may not be useful.

106. Most Europeans enjoy wearing swim suits everywhere they go. Small ones. And no one knows why - even them.

107. Generally, people want to find out what they don't know.

108. Gem sales is always a scam of some kind.

109. Pretty much anything can be converted to sweat.

110. Electricity is more straightforward than you imagine. But knowing its dangers is important.

111. Facts and sayings about monkeys are typically true.

112. Something led to the past that you may have forgotten.

113. In past lives, we were most likely all at crocodiles at some point.

114. Being exploited never hurts as much as you expect.

115. Everything is negotiable.

116. "Whether you think you can, or you can't, you're right." -Henry Ford

117. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head to one side, a 2 looks remarkably like a 5.

118. Friendship, regardless of recency or duration, is priceless.

119. Irregardless is a nonstandard word.

120. Convenience comes at a premium. Its worth is another, ad hoc issue.

121. "Just do it." -Nike

122. Traffic accidents hurt and, if possible, should be avoided.

123. Fine dust isn't attractive.

124. Any type of music affects your mood.

125. "The first cut is the deepest." -Cat Stevens

126. 'OK' might simply entail acknowledgment, possible acceptance, maybe tolerance, or even something completely else.

127. Same same, but different. -Thai cultural slogan

128. Sunk costs are unrecoverable.

129. Honesty is the best policy. But not the only policy.

130. Eating usually makes you feel better.

131. The customer isn't always right.

132. 'Never' and 'always' are difficult words to use.

133. Definitions are important, but keep in mind that most things have more than one.

134. Even bad jokes are funny.

135. "Never stop exploring." -The North Face

136. Stop to smell the roses. Or at least, stop and smell the roses.

137. You hesitate, you die.

138. Shopping around never hurts.

139. Learn when to keep playing and when to stop and cut your losses.

140. The first step is the hardest and most intimidating, but muster the courage to take it & you will never regret the path that follows.

142. Pay attention to your instincts. Tremendous knowledge can exist in the midst of lacking full comprehension.

143. Zombies are usually hokey, but always creepy.

144. There's strength in numbers.

145. Compared to its equivalent nearly anywhere else, Korean beer is terrible.

146. The need for applying sunscreen increases as you get closer to the equator.

147. For better or worse, police officers are human.

148. Learn to tell the difference between those who are & those who aren't your friends. And remember that the former are few & far between.

149. Words are both meaningful and meaningless at the same time.

150. "Silence is golden." -AMC Theatres

151. Be careful with whom you associate.

152. "True love is fleeting, but herpes lasts a lifetime." -Anonymous

153. Your mother was right: no one likes a freeloader.

154. Singing is never a bad decision.

155. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

156. It takes quite awhile to come up with a positive outcome that resulted from regret.

157. "The world is not enough." -Neal Purvis

158. You can buy anything - but don't neglect your duty to be a smart shopper.

159. Money is a powerful thing & its pursuit leads to some strange circumstances.

160. We're all in this together.

161. Rain might be uncomfortable, but it isn't painful.

162. Materialism should never be an ultimate goal - but there's nothing wrong with it when it serves as a means to achieve or is a byproduct of achieving a more noble purpose.

163. If you want or expect to always be happy, you're in for a surprise.

164. "Tourists don't know where they've been. Travelers don't know where they're going." -Paul Theroux

165. You get out of it what you put into it.

166. Understanding what someone needs without needing to ask them is an admirable skill.

167. "Grammar: The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you're shit." -absolutelymadness.tumblr.com

168. Adventures find some people more easily than others & the reason is one of the great mysteries of the universe.

169. "Good judgment can come from bad experiences; good experiences can come from bad judgment." -Rolf Potts

170. "Don't ever look back." -Katy Perry

171. The city of Pattaya is 60% Thai, 30% Russian, 0.4% North American, 74% beaches, 55% bikinis, 63% nightlife, 39% prostitution, 22% criminal, and 96% awesome.

172. "Love the skin that you're in." -Oil of Olay

173. The beach has no place for protection.

174. Air dry in front of a fan on a hot day, but don't forget to wear a helmet. It'll blow your mind.

175. "You've come a long way, baby." -Virginia Slims

176. Realistically, only one person cares about your intentions. And you don't have to look very far to find them.

177. If you're a creature of comfort or especially risk averse, you might want to reconsider hopping on the back of a motorcycle before complete inspection and consideration.

178. "...But the vagrant owns the whole vast earth that ends only at the nonexistent horizon." -Isabelle Eberhardt

179. Removing words is a surefire path to honest communication.

180. Don't worry too much about the future. It'll all work out how you want it to.

181. People don't like having their identity questioned.

182. You can find 'America's Best _____' anywhere in the world. And that product may very possibly be better than the original.

183. Keep your eye on the ball.

184. The world needs more - and better - repackagers than Taco Bell.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chivalry in the Dark Ages

There once lived a knight named Sir Matalot who hailed from a sophisticated land known as the Unified Provincial Republic (the UPR). The title of knight is somewhat of a misnomer, because Matalot was never recognized as much of an exceptional warrior. He was a relatively young, quiet & unassuming man who wasn't the most highly educated or experienced in the culture and customs of UPR, but he was moderately bright and got along decently well in his homeland and was able to manage a simple, honest lifestyle for himself.

Since Sir Matalot's native UPR had always been his only home, he was incapable of noticing anything peculiar about the ways of his land, for he had a rather slight basis of comparison to anywhere else. He was a naturally inquisitive man, but wasn't especially skilled in the arts - especially in navigation or voyaging, although he was quite interested in these sorts of things; and deep in the recesses of his being, he knew that lands terrifically different than his own existed somewhere out in the unknown. Such places he longed to see, and in them resided people he wanted to meet.

Upon his completion of the formal required training period in the UPR, Sir Matalot took a moment to analyze his life station. For ages, he had frequently dreamt tales of faraway times and places commonly recounted by a lifetime's worth of companions. For multitudes of those who came before Matalot told grand anecdotes of courage, adventure, heroism, and fortitude - and Sir Matalot wished to generate his own stories like the ones he heard.

Heeding the universe's call, our intrepid wannabe explorer then set out on a course to learn anything & everything he possibly could about other lands he might be able to visit. He directed more specific questions to acquaintances who had traveled before him by various methods to all manner of places. Matalot was most interested in the stories involving traveling to bizarre places of other eras, and so decided he would embark on a similar journey. He compiled a sizable list of potential sites and finally made up his mind: he would spend two years exploring an ancient land called the Perublic of Rokea (or shorthandedly, simply Rokea). Rokea was a charming place full of traditions unlike his own, and in it, housed countless locations & people which Matalot immensely wished to greet. Throughout his great excitement and anticipation, he maintained a sharp awareness that he would forever remain a Provincian, and as such, endlessly be seen as an outsider in the land of Rokea, and he must never forget his
people or his birthplace.

During his stay in Rokea, Sir Matalot never abandoned his curious nature and tremendously enjoyed learning about the interesting thoughts of Rokeans and their unusual ways of completing tasks. He came to realize that these people were fundamentally much similar to the Provincians he knew, but they constantly demonstrated new and fascinating sides of humanity - which left a lasting impression on Matalot. In spite of this huge positivism, Sir Matalot oftentimes became frustrated in his new home since the culture to which he was accustomed and their related worldviews were vastly different than the ones in this new place. It took a considerable length of time, but the constant barrage of odd instances in Rokea eventually caused our hero to deeply miss his homeland. Perhaps he just wasn't habituated to Rokea's ways. Or maybe it was because he didn't fully understand the Rokean philosophies behind their foreign practices, which subsequently required the apparent peculiar hierarchies of this civilization - other things that Matalot was unable to comprehend.

Nonetheless, examples like
http://www.viralviralvideos.com/2010/10/04/old-korean-woman-attacks-teenage-girl-on-korean-subway/ became a daily unavoidable occurrence to Sir Matalot in the land of Rokea. These types of actions never took place in the UPR, and Matalot tried and tried, but he kept falling short of a complete understanding.

Several aspects of our hero's UPR quickly became evident to Sir Matalot. For one, Matalot came to appreciate that he had generally taken for granted his familiarity with his homeland, and he now became certain that Provincian ways were comparably more advanced than those of Rokea. You see, the relatively longer existence of UPR culture allowed the civilization to experience shifts in its collective identity. These changes were the product of realizations of wrongs innately created by humanity. The corporate shifts began in the form of movements, gained widespread acceptance in the land's citizenship, and ultimately led to amendments in the civilization's laws. Rokea's shorter cultural history hadn't provided it with the opportunities to yet accomplish these kinds of things.

There was also the universally relevant topic of personal defense. People in every time and every place have realized that not all people's interests always agree with each other. And when disagreements occur, opposing parties occasionally get angry and conflicts (along with the occasional violence) ensue. So people began forming tools in order to protect themselves and their interests. However upsetting as the fighting might be, violence and weaponry have become inextricably linked with all civilizations. In their daily lives, Rokeans still relied on primitive tools.

Some examples of Rokean devices:

In the more advanced UPR civilization, personal defense was still a concern for residents, but they faced different circumstances that, in turn, called for unique weaponry and related uses. Following completion of training, each citizen was issued an individualized self defense item. These items came in many forms: some were bigger than others or more powerful or more or less accurate than others. They were all specialized for particular situations and reflected each citizen's unique style of training and level of skill. Sir Matalot was equipped with a common Provincian device - that is, commonly used in his native land, but quite unlike anything seen in Rokea.

Sir Matalot carried a UPR-issued directed energy weapon:

This isn't to say that Rokean and UPR's social and moral structures were completely opposite, but the lands' systems were greatly different. Rokean culture wasn't better or worse than any other. And similarly, Rokean personal defense capabilities were far from non-existent, but not on par with those of UPR. They were just perfectly dissimilar.

Sir Matalot befriended many fellow travelers in his new temporary home. Some of these new acquaintances came from other distant advanced societies, ones that also held the resource capabilities that allowed for time travel from their homes to places like Rokea. Most of these people were also equipped with devices strange to Rokea, and they all met comparable struggles as Sir Matalot. One such difficulty was that Matalot's UPR-issued self defense weapon didn't operate properly in Rokea. Apparently, Provincian devices needed a constant supply of UPR energy to remain useful, and so they only maintained their maximum effectiveness when kept and used within UPR boundaries.

A Provincian with an inoperable weapon, and hence unable to protect himself, would naturally feel exposed. Thus, as was the case with Sir Matalot in the Perublic of Rokea. In addition to feelings of vulnerability, Matalot was also often bothered when he had to stand idly by whenever one Rokean took advantage of another Rokean. He didn't understand why someone would do this to a fellow citizen. But nevertheless, he was helpless in these kinds of situations - for his UPR device was useless and, even when occasionally partially effective, had no success when it met Rokean defenses.

One particular day as Sir Matalot boarded the local transportation carriage, he witnessed an especially remarkable event. When stepping into the coach, he was pleased to come face to face with a beautiful young Rokean woman. They briefly acknowledged each other, then carried on with their preoccupations. Directly behind Matalot, a nobleman entered the carriage. Likewise to Matalot, the nobleman was comparably smitten by the young woman. And being in a position of authority and - as such - enjoying an air of entitlement, the nobleman began to make a series of advancements toward the young woman. She made attempts to tell the nobleman that she was not interested in his urges, but he continued to press forward and became increasingly aggressive - for, afterall, his status was superior to hers, and Rokean custom called for a lesser person's compliance with any demands of a superior. Unless a person of higher rank overrules.

Once again, Sir Matalot was forced to sit back, watch, and remain powerless throughout the entire situation. For this was the way of the Rokean people, and they could handle their business internally. And even if he wanted to intervene, he knew that his weapon would be ineffective and he would be effortlessly dispatched. But, just then, another nobleman bravely came to the rescue! He had overheard the commotion and promptly ran to the damsel's aid. Brandishing his weapon, the lady's savior chased off the offender and saved the day.

Meanwhile in his role as the quiet observer, Sir Matalot was overcome with a sense that justice had been upheld that day. Although he wasn't the hero in this story, he didn't seem to care. For what he saw that day shined a light on the goodness of the Rokean people and filled him with a peace of mind that he had never felt about the Rokean way of life. Furthermore, he now felt a confidence that everything was the way it should be and that everyone, everywhere would be just fine. He also knew that if decency existed where he never expected it to be, things would surely be as peaceful as ever back in the UPR.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Ship has Arrived

Yes indeed, my friends. And it is called the R.O.K. Movie Star.

(Note: Korean ships are much like their Western counterparts. Except they are smaller and lighter, with more efficient power systems & engines - therefore making them faster and more maneuverable. On the other hand, their designs and floorplans are sometimes quite confusing, and there are also quite a few typos on essential safety equipment. Moreover, all purchases while on board are tax free.)

After spending nearly 2 years in Asia, I have finally reached the celebrity status that I've been striving toward since Day 1... I am featured in the currently-airing Korean blockbuster The Perfect Game!

Well, not exactly featured, per se, but I did participate in some of the filming, was compensated for my time, and can very probably be seen on screen. And several of my cohorts positively made an appearance either on camera or were named in the credits.

Nonetheless, it's an excellent film. In true fashion of 'based on true events' stories - it does not disappoint & certainly tells a story as only nonfiction can. I highly recommend seeing it - although be prepared if you're a fellow non-Korean speaker - for, excluding the opening scenes, not a word of English is spoken.

The Perfect Game recounts a tale of two ultra-competitive professional athletes of differing generations who struggle to discover in themselves the ability to find common ground in the midst of a time and place that tells them that they shouldn't. The movie's basic plot is: "Choi Dong-Won of the Lotte Giants and Sun Dong-Ryul of the Haitai Tigers are rival baseball pitchers. In an epic showdown these two pitchers faceoff in a 15 inning marathon game."

The final game is, of course, the culmination of the story. But there are many great subplots leading up to the showdown that add so much to the finale. It's ultimate moral is told through the lens of a 'never say die' baseball analogy. The background of its competitive setting wonderfully displays the unifying nature of sports to all of the players, teams, and fans involved. Professional respect & admiration shine through the fierce tension between the opposing teams and individuals. The movie also does a great job of describing the inner conflicts of many characters, and in some cases, shows the resulting unbreakable bonds. Additionally, there are touching family matters, heartbreaking endings of lifelong relationships, and personal (social, financial, and otherwise) struggles of many characters. During all of this, attention is also drawn to attempts by government officials to reduce the event so that it can be used as a political tool. But unfortunately for the concerned parties, the game refuses to be simplified and an authentic human spirit transcends.

Monday, December 19, 2011

End of an Era?

With yesterday's news regarding the passing of Kim Jong-il, there has been quite the range of emotions here in Korea: shock, but also an understanding of his advanced age; jubilation regarding an anticipation for the ending of an oppressive regime; widespread confusion; sorrow for the death of a countryman; hopefulness of positive changes down the road (including higher than average mentions to possible reunification); wonder of how this might affect the average person; a bit of anxiety and nervousness due to the nature of circumstances, but peace of mind brought on by years of military readiness; sadness for the loss of a life; concerns that conditions (both domestically and internationally) may become even worse under a young and inexperienced heir; and to a lesser extent, surprising indifference to the entire situation.

Working from personal experience, most people's initial reactions are ones of happiness. This is an easy conclusion at which to arrive after watching decades of persisting crimes against humanity, mounds of unequivocal evidence that North Korea has been unmistakably evil to its own, and how the country has been extremely unstable in the global arena. Feeling justified by their country's foreign policy, many Americans seem to appreciate this year's news in a specific fashion. Most auspiciously, we're making considerable gains on that axis of evil! And some of the world's most heinous leaders have perished. First it was Hussein, then this year we get 3 big ones: Bin Laden, Gaddafi, and now finally the Jonger. Happy Days!! Now, we can get down to work on that pesky Khamenei..

In my opinion, these kinds of reactions are unsettling for two major reasons - since they display: 1) an utter disregard for human life, and 2) social/political shortsightedness for the future and ignorance of potential repercussions this event may create.

First (and most simply), I believe that reveling in the aftermath of another human's expiration, regardless of that person's actions while alive, is just plain sick. One can easily, and not at all inaccurately, argue that Mr. Kim was a horrible person who carried out unspeakable wrongs against his own people and whose erratic behavior unnecessarily kept the entire world on edge. But I would respond to that person by reminding them of the terms with which they began that rant: Mr. and person.

Secondly, there's a greater issue at stake that shouldn't be neglected - and that's the significant power vacuum now presented. Undoubtedly, these events most certainly beg a wait-and-see attitude. Although, one also freely wonders if this leads to yet another "strike while the iron is hot" moment.

The hierarchy is less straightforward than ever. Increasingly, talk is made of a great successor in Jong-il's youngest son - the 28 year-old Kim Jong-un - who is arguably less crazy (but also more eager to prove himself) than his old man. Also disconcerting are formal quotes made by the official DPRK news agency, such as:

Jong-un stands] at the vanguard of the Korean revolution... to the revolutionary cause of juche [self reliance] and the outstanding leader of our party, military, and people. [His] leadership will guarantee the completion of the revolutionary cause of juche through the generations, after it was started by Kim Il-sung and led to victory by Kim Jong-il.”

On a brighter note, the seeming consensus among Koreans who are old enough to recall the 1994 death of Jong-il's father, Il-sung, is that the change of power this time causes less worry. Recollections of those days are commonly made of ransacking stores for all the available water and ramyun noodles. At the time, a possible outbreak of war was a very real concern, due to the historical knowledge of North Korea's unpredictable behavior, coupled with a robust military. Today, 17 years later, the military and economic power disparities are notably much different. But we all know what happens when a weakened opponent is on the ropes and starts to feel helpless..

Another very likely outcome to all of this is that now politicians around the world are provided with an excellent platform. A platform for exactly what..? Furthermore, the world is obviously scarier and a tenser place when nuclear capabilities exist. I, for one, am trying to remain optimistic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Let The Truth Be Told...

I am tired of living a life based on hiding from true reality and one founded on the spreading of lies and mistruths. For most of my life, and especially since coming to Korea, I have led one campaign of coverup after another. I have finally come to a place where I'm prepared to tell my deepest and darkest secrets - things unknown to even my family and closest friends. For so long, I haven't allowed myself the utter relief that this revealing process will certainly deliver, by constantly repressing the desire to disclose the actual facts and own my mistakes. In hindsight, my failure to uncover these truths has only furthered the concealment of the monkeys on my back, and served to increase their weight. I am aware that my inaction has been attributed to a fear of possible judgment or lack of acceptance, and I have finally resigned myself to accept the power of healing as well as any potential consequences this may cause.

So where to start? Well, as they typically do, things began rather innocently. Out of a need to maintain a sense of normalcy and holding onto routine in the only way I knew, I joined a local **sigh** gym in the early part of last year. As events progressed and life unfolded, I started paying more and more frequent visits. First, it was the lure of the treadmill. Then, it was the bench press. And eventually, I even gave in to the, dare I say it, the kettle bells. Yes... I am, without a doubt, as disgusted as you surely also must be right now and no acceptable excuse legitimizes my despicable actions.

The hardest part of revealing this shameful habit is reminding myself of all the ways I have caused irreparable harm to so many people. The countless nights that I selfishly left barstools vacant, incalculable numbers of kegs untapped and cigarette packages unopened.. Oh god, the damage that I have caused! Will I ever be forgiven?

In my defense, this inclination originally struck me after I fell victim to an insidious scheme perpetuated by many so-called experts. I ignorantly believed doctors and exercise specialists as they spouted hair-brained theories; hackneyed dogma which said things such as how physical exercise promotes self-improvement and -satisfaction, when this shameful practice is, in reality, really only one performed out of arrogance and an unnaturally false conception of independence. Others told me that exercise would provide a relief from stress. Pfsssh!! I've never heard a belief organized around such an unproven and inadequately tested concept! They also duped me into believing that exercise would allow me to remain mentally stable and motivated. What insane notions!

To boot, my addiction to exercise hasn't been my sole vice during these trying times. There has been a more sinister, more pernicious demon lurking beneath my seemingly fanciful expressions and accepting eyes. I hate to admit it, but I'm a recovering norebanger. You may not be aware of this debilitating condition, so let me describe the practice and hopefully bring awareness to this oft-overlooked subject.

Norebang, or what some may slyly refer to as 노래방, was originally a victimless Korean pastime breaking from the traditional, conservative ways of Japanese-style karaoke. In the abundant 'singing room' establishments throughout the country, patrons are assigned to individual rooms for them and any number of guests, and given the minimum of an hour to make song selections, all while gleefully playing tambourines and drumming on any object in sight. The practice of norebang boasts modest beginnings - whose only purpose was to offer stressed Koreans an opportunity of amusement and expression.

However, norebang later adopted an evil side and has now led to a huge number of interrupted lives and fractured homes throughout the continent. This insidious monster has brought with it just enough comfort to gain entrance into people's hearts & minds, slowly destroyed the trust that it built, and left a trail of withered souls in its path. I advise everyone with whom I come into contact to never even consider 'trying' it out, for it is the quintessential wolf in sheep's clothing. And furthermore, anyone who asks you to give it a shot is not your friend and cannot be trusted.

Some might tell you that norebang is an excellent outlet for creativity. Don't believe them; and remember that you could just as easily take part in an alternate & less dehumanizing form of entertainment. These same people may attempt to mislead you by saying norebang affords you a chance to see friends in new & exciting settings (when any moron knows that you should easily remain content by just visiting people in the usual establishments). Other snake oil they might try to sell is that norebang provides momentary sensations of ecstasy - when it is essential to remember that however real these feelings might appear, they are artificial. You must simply become adept at creating happiness out of any routine, however tedious or boring it may seem.

Earlier, attention was drawn to the fact that I am indeed a recuperating norebanger, intending to someday reclaim a normal life for myself. Personally, American karaoke became a gateway activity that led to my ultimate downfall. Not many people know this: but in a former life, I was a contentedly ordinary guy. It wasn't until moving to Asia when I realized that I had a serious problem. After the chronic late nights and constant reminders of smelling to high heaven of microphones, I knew something had to be done. Friday, September 23rd was the last day that I partook, when I was met with an especially irritated vision in my dreams that night. The next morning, I posthaste enrolled in the local community center's NA (Norebangers Anonymous) chapter and began attending the weekly meetings.

I am pleased to announce that last week I was awarded the coveted Ruby Hiker's Pole, signifying completion of the 11th out of 12 stages in the program. Tonight, I will attempt the final stage of the program, whose goal is to reintroduce a sustainable form of norebang into a person's life. It will be a grand event where I hope to prove to myself and the world that I am able to cope with this struggle and maintain a sense of composure through our dealings. Please pray for me as I venture into uncharted territory, for I know not what the future holds...