Year Three

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Outdoors, Personal, Travel, USA on March 12, 2010 by Elephant Talk

I watched an excellent TED lecture on experience and memory an hour or so ago. He said that a perceptible “moment” lasts about three seconds. We have around 600,000,000 of these in an average lifetime. These are the incidents in our lives when we are not in the past or in the future but rather experience the now of being alive. Then they’re gone. But as much as we might state otherwise, they are not what we treasure as human beings. What we treasure and preserve are the memories of those moments. We store them up in order to reflect on them later. We endeavor toward collecting interesting ones in the future so that we may later enjoy these reflections on the past. The point is not to experience, but to utilize experience toward memory. Because memory is the story of our lives.

The timing of this TED viewing is appropriate to me personally because of the date today. It’s March 12, my birthday. But more significant to this thought process, it marks the third anniversary of my move to Korea. This is my third year of writing about this date. I did it last year and the year before. I just finished reading those entries and I remember that person very clearly. I can recall the moments that led me to write what I did.

So what about Year 3? In one way, it’s an extension of the feelings and impressions of Year 2. The “reality bubble” is still a weird thing. But this year is different in that it seemed to go by in a flash, much faster than the previous two. Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s my changing perception of the (memory of) the experience. This year (March to March) I made a stronger effort toward improving my Korean language ability (still frustratingly inept at it), continued to take fantastic weekend trips to the Korean countryside, and continued to play music. I spent what seems like an enormous amount of time applying to graduate schools. I traveled to the States in the summer, Japan in the fall, and Thailand and Cambodia in the winter. I completed an academic paper that had been nagging at me for a while, and started another one.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Sound, Travel on January 20, 2010 by Elephant Talk

There is a compulsion after a long time away from the blog to apologize for inactivity. I’m not going to do that. But this time I have a reason for my inactivity. I was inspired by my friend Tharp, who wrote an excellent post grazing over the highlights (and, indeed, lowlights) of the past 10 years of his life. I decided to write one myself, but it got voluminous and obsessive and turned into a longwinded unfinished project. (I can’t seem to do anything with brevity.) I’m only up to the middle of 2007. I’m into the start of the really good stuff and I just can’t see how I can fill all of those remaining experiences into a small container.

Anyway, that’s the reason I haven’t posted lately. I kept expecting to finish it and pare it down to something digestible for this medium. I will finish it at some point. It’s been an illuminating exercise going through all the joys, heartbreaks, craziness and adventures of the aughts. But by the time I’m done it may be too late to be relevant for a blog. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll post it at some point, maybe I won’t.

In the meantime, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my January.

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Posted in Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Music, Personal, Sound, Technology, USA on January 3, 2010 by Elephant Talk

We’re not immune to entertainment hype over here in Korea. We may not get the same deluge of advertising, or have our faces shoved into the trough of the ‘next great thing’ — for which I’m grateful — but hype travels across oceans. It seeps through internet tubes, it buzzes through Facebook status updates. I could feel the hype about Avatar. But I intentionally closed it off. I never saw a trailer, never (intentionally) looked at images, shunned interviews, shut people up during dinner conversations. I did everything I could to wait until it was real. Because I could feel it. I didn’t know what it was. But I could feel that something amazing was coming.

When I finally sat down in the theater and fixed those 3D glasses on my nose, I was going in blissfully ignorant. So I’m not ashamed to say this: I’ve been waiting my whole life for this movie, for that experience. We’ve gotten close in the past 30 years, but nothing got to that place that Avatar got to. All during my childhood, I stared at images of otherworldly places in the pages of Heavy Metal, in the art of Vallejo, Giger and Dean. I’d stare at them and imagine a culture within and beyond the frozen image. What’s beyond this moment? What happened before and after, what’s going on outside the margins? That’s the great thing about geeky fantasy art. The static images allow your mind to fill in the rest; they free you to wonder and imagine. It’s the reason I started drawing pictures, making up stories in my head. But all the time I’d be frustrated because my imagination wasn’t good enough. I kept thinking, “dammit, when’s it going to MOVE?!”

Now it has, for the first time ever in my life, in the way that I’ve been waiting for. I saw Star Wars when it came out in 1977, but I was too young to get it. I soaked up every frame of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But Avatar, in 3D, was the first time that cinema took me there. I almost cried a couple times and I’ve never cried in a movie in my life. When they first started flying on the dragon creatures, oh my god. Many times in the movie I let out little unconscious, unintentional sounds, little tiny orgasmic sounds. I couldn’t help myself. They finally did it, and I lived long enough to see it. I’ll never get my own personal space ship, but I have this.

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Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Music, Personal, USA on December 31, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I walked into a Japanese ramen restaurant a couple weeks back and saw another foreigner I know. He’s not a friend, but I see him around on occasion and we chat whenever we run into each other. So we sat there at the counter, ate our noodles together, and talked about that subject that foreigner acquaintances talk about when given a small chunk of time: What’s your current situation here? Are you staying or leaving? When’s your contract up for renewal? And then, if given more time (as we were), you move to the next stage (as we did): Compare and contrast our perspectives on life here — or put another way — our life not being there.

When it comes to talk of contracts, work situations, and the familiar threads of frustration that come with it, there’s common ground. But when it comes to talk about life here, that’s when divides occasionally emerge. He and I couldn’t be more different. And it’s probably why we’re not anything more than acquaintances.

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Posted in Culture, Expat life, Personal, USA on December 24, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Christmas exists at the quantum level. It’s there. But it’s also not there. As an observable thing, its position, energy and momentum vary depending on how I choose to see it. I’m better off when I’m not focusing directly on it. But I’ve just today finished my work, both personal and job-related. Applications are in the mail, and grades were submitted this afternoon. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m now free to fully absorb Christmas in its macro form. Bummer.

Well, not really bummer. Just that this one day seems like such a big deal. Celebration is expected. This is fine when you’re surrounded by family, but it’s a matter of endurance when you’re away from your home country.

That said, I’m excited about the next couple of days. The neighborhood expat bars know how to ease the loneliness for all the fellow loners. Whereas people in the United States travel from relative to relative in their cars, I’ll go from bar to bar on foot. My friend Tom, who owns HQ Bar, will be cooking up a big Christmas Eve dinner of ham, mashed potatoes, etc, and etc. I expect a packed house of regulars. Across the alley, Eva of Eva’s Bar has apparently come up with her own new eggnog recipe. A couple weeks ago she asked me what people like to have for Christmas. I told her that the one flavor that I associate with Christmas is eggnog. She’d never heard of it, so I pointed her to some recipes online. I’m curious to sample what she’s come up with. Then on Christmas day, two of my friends are hosting a big party at their apatuh. Lots of food, a few games, some animated Christmas specials, maybe play a few songs.

I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical, because I don’t mean it in a negative sense. But these celebrations primarily function as analgesia for a feeling of absence. It’s a means of mutual coping for being away from what’s familiar. I welcome it all.

So, Merry Christmas everyone. But I wish a very special Merry Christmas to all those expatriated from their home world. Don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon enough.

New GRE, same old story

Posted in Academics, Personal on December 7, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Hey, here’s a big news flash: The GRE is all about money. Just as I’ve been saying lately in my campaign of rants against this ageist form of human compartmentalization, the GRE is principally designed to make more money for ETS and test-prep companies.

They’ve recently announced a change in the format of the exam, to begin in 2011. (This news tip given to me by my mother, incidentally.) I had to scroll down to get to this little morsel:

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a long-time critic of ETS, agreed, saying that the modifications were generally “small to modest changes designed to refurbish and reposition a stale product. It’s all about marketing.” He said that the lengthening of the exam time could make fatigue “a more significant issue.”

The larger question, he said, is whether graduate programs need the GRE at all. Given that graduate programs admit from “a much smaller universe” (of colleges) than do undergraduate programs (with many more high schools), he said that “the argument that you need testing” to compare candidates “is weaker.”

Only one group is sure to gain by the switch, Schaeffer said. “Whenever you change a test, you give a tremendous boost to the coaching industry.”

Historically, test changes tend to encourage more people to seek out test prep services. Some rush to take the old test (on the chance they earn higher scores there) and so use coaching to speed up preparation; and those who are among the first to take a new test are more likely than others to want test prep because they can’t rely on informal advice about the exams.

And, from the New York Times:

Generally, Mr. Seltzer said he saw the changes mostly as an marketing effort, to compete with the GMAT test, used for admission to business schools.

Congratulations, ETS, I hope you rake in the dough. And thank you, universities out there, for supporting their business goals.

Yes, I’m still angry.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Korea, Personal, Travel on December 3, 2009 by Elephant Talk

First the bad news. My objective for going to Japan was a failure. It’s not that I failed the GRE, it’s that I failed to match or exceed my expectations. I scored 30 meager points higher than the last time I took the exam in August. I was hoping for, at worst, a 100-point improvement. I would have been happy to gain another 125-150. But I didn’t. So in that regard, the effort was a waste of time and money.

I studied my ass off this time, hours a day, every single day. I set aside other things in my life during a very busy time, and even strained a couple friendships in the process. I used exam guides, complete with diagnostic reports charting my progress. By the time I’d finished all the practice exams, I was projecting a score close to 1200, a score that would have been at least satisfying and would validate the effort. I did not get near that score. And it’s the kind of score you need to get into a good communications program.

So, once again I say fuck you GRE. I concede that you win, you’re too much for me. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to think that I could regain all the complex algebra and geometry skills I may (or may not) have had when I was in high school two decades ago. So I will never take it again. It’s an exam for young people. Old men like me are not meant to take it. So, then, are old men like me not meant for doctoral study? It would seem to be the case. Universities, which use the GRE to determine eligibility, apparently only want young people. Incidentally, yesterday I saw a Facebook update from a friend of mine who signed up for GRE prep classes in Korea (she’s Korean) and was denied admittance to the class. The reason? She was told she is too old to take the class. No joke.

Now the good news: Japan is amazing, simply amazing. It was the perfect place to make me forget about my disastrous test score. So after the exam, I dug into Japan for four full days and nights. Nights in Osaka, day trips to Kyoto and Nara, a jam session in Kobe. I had a blast.

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Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Travel on November 25, 2009 by Elephant Talk

It’s the night before Thanksgiving day here in Asia. I’ll be spending my Thanksgiving morning in an airplane flying from Busan to Osaka. As anyone who has read the past few entries knows, I’ve signed up to take the GRE there the morning after that. So while people in America are turning off the final NFL game and falling into a tryptophan-induced slumber, I’ll be waking up to take a 4-hour standardized examination. Fun for me.

The good news is that after that, I have four days to explore the Kansai region. I’ve booked five nights total in Osaka. I hoped to base myself in Kyoto, but everything was booked up by the time I got around to planning places to stay. So I will take day trips there and to Nara, if all goes well.

This whole journey has kind of a lonely feeling to it. Part of it is the knowledge that it’s obligatory. It’s not really vacation; I’m going there because I have to. But it’s also the solo travel aspect. I don’t mind traveling alone, but I prefer the company of others. It gives you someone to share experiences with, laugh at absurdities, and discuss options. Soaking up a Blade-Runner-esque nighttime cityscape or a lush, green temple setting is nice to experience solely through one’s own eyes and ears, but it’s also nice at some point to turn to someone and say “cool, huh?”

But I’m excited. I don’t care about the GRE. I’ve studied as much as I care to, and that whole structure can go to hell. I’ll get whatever score I get. But I’m looking forward to the rest of it. I know very little about Japan and didn’t do much research, so I do feel woefully under-prepared for the vacation aspect. The one time I was there was for a Fukuoka visa-run that lasted all of 24 hours. That trip, only two weeks into my Korea experience oh so long ago, felt simply like an extension of Busan. So this feels like my first time. And I’m always up for a first of anything.


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Music, Personal, Sound, Travel on November 21, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Time is, without question, the most valuable resource we have. It is a fixed entity. We know more or less how much of it we have (at the most, anyway), and we are aware of the milestones along the way. Once we get to a certain age, these points become marks of incremental regression in ability, facility, energy.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately, because I’ve been living primarily in the future for the past three or four months. It seems like everything I do lately is geared toward doing the next thing. This happens when you live by one-year contracts, and every cycle brings about a different signing scenario. I was profoundly disappointed by the last go-round, so I’m pushing myself even harder toward the next thing.

I’m applying for doctoral programs. This is an incredibly time-consuming process. It’s a bunch of maddening details made more insane by the vast body of water that separates me from my native country. Communication lags and takes the form of text, and there are certain things that need to be done in person that cannot be done. There is research, massive amounts of research. There is contact with advisors and students and program coordinators. There is contact with past professors for recommendation letters and advice. There are transcripts to be ordered (this simple thing being a strangely murderous process from my current location). There are statements of purpose to write, things to collect and package, things to consider including. And, of course, my big obsession right now: the GRE. I’m studying like a madman. I don’t know if it will help, but I’m dedicating myself to giving it my best shot. The exam requires a trip to Japan, which requires hotels, air travel, a big plan.

I also have, of course, my regular life. This involves teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, grading quizzes and projects, planning lectures, considering end-of-semester deadlines. It involves musical projects to which I’ve devoted myself. Everything else, including Korean language study, I’ve put on hold.

So this is how I exhaust my time. I’m burning that non-replenishable tank of fuel by preparing. The truth is, I’m not convinced that it will amount to anything. I don’t know yet if a) I’ll be accepted to a good PhD program, and b) I’ll accept an offer that comes to me. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m ready to leave. I like it here. Korea gives me time… to work, travel, write, play, experience. I like my friends, I like my life, I like what the place gives me. But I’m approaching that critical three-year period. From what I’ve seen of the foreigners here, this is the threshold. People who have been here two years talk about a future back home. People who have been here for three don’t. And if I do decide to stay, Plan B involves me staying for a very long time.

This mindset is what’s playing with my brain right now. It’s what has me thinking about time. Even if I wasn’t applying for doctoral programs, I’d still be using my time living in the future. I’d be studying Korean language (a long-term future endeavor), or I’d be re-writing my textbook (for future publishing), or I’d be thinking about new job opportunities.

It’s also got me thinking about the other things I could otherwise be doing with the time I’ve been given. I could be learning to play guitar. I could be expanding as a drummer. I could be mastering MAX/MSP. I could be writing a novel. I could be creating an ambient soundtrack to a non-existent film. I could be… Dancing Nancies.


Posted in Culture, Expat life, Korea, Technology on November 20, 2009 by Elephant Talk

The iPhone is coming to Korea. This isn’t really that big of a news flash, because it was expected to happen. But now it’s pretty much official.

The speculation on that article up there is about how much it will penetrate the market here. I expect it to be pretty much a status symbol. In South Korea, Apple is an image thing. Microsoft is so ubiquitous that people gravitate to Apple things to present status (a very important thing here). It’s big at my workplace. I know one Korean colleague who has a Macintosh in his office, but it just sits there. He doesn’t actually use it; he’s got his Windows machine for actual work. But damn, it looks good. I know another who bought a Mac and only runs Windows through Boot-camp. And I’d say there are about five or six people in my department who have Apple monitors running Windows machines. That nice bold Apple icon oozes coolness.

It will be interesting to see how the iPhone does. It’s not really needed here, because while it might be a big technological breakthrough in the U.S., it’s not that big a deal here. Through Samsung and LG, people already have phones with huge hard drives to store and play all their music and a bunch of quirky apps. And because of DMB broadcasting, people can (and do) watch TV on their phones, something the iPhone doesn’t allow (at least I don’t think). The Samsung phones are pretty sweet, with touch screens and a bunch of cool features.

It will be interesting to watch how app development goes. I’d like to see some Korean-based apps come out. But again, from what I’ve seen, the interest in Apple is in the packaging (the hardware). Few people use Macintosh software, and I would suspect there are only a tiny number of people who could program for it.

If it does well, I suspect it will be because of the Apple brand more than the actual product. I probably won’t get one. I have a new iPod Touch that I’m happy with. Also, the iPhone requires a two-year contract and I don’t know whether I’ll be here that long. I’m not a bleeding edge kinda guy anyway. I’ll wait for the other foreigners (who are ready to make the leap) to test drive the situation before I consider it.