Archive for the USA Category

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 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.

GRE venting

Posted in Academics, Culture, Korea, Personal, USA on November 17, 2009 by Elephant Talk

So I’m taking the fucking GRE again. As I said a while back, I completely bombed it over the summer. For some reason I thought that taking a massive, potentially life-altering examination on summer vacation was a good idea. I didn’t respect the exam, so I didn’t study.

I still don’t respect it. I think it’s worthless. Universities are massive bureaucracies, tiny pockets of Soviet style objectivism. The GRE only encourages them to be even more unimaginative and lazy. Strange that the great institutes of higher learning would choose something so inane as their threshold of determining candidacy. Yes, letters, SOPs, background, accomplishments, work all matter. But the GRE, developed by a for-profit private sector company, is their gateway. Many universities aren’t even shy about it. They proudly state that one must get a combined 1,100 or 1,200 to even be considered.

Why do I hate the GRE so much? Because it’s a measure of neither creative nor intelligent thought. It’s a means of getting people to fall in line with everyone else. Getting a good score does not require intelligence, it requires obedience to a structure. My theory is that universities want to see that you are willing to dedicate yourself to something ridiculous for a lengthy period of time to prove that you’re willing to work on some equally ridiculous research project for your adviser over a prolonged period of time. The GRE requires two things: time and discipline. You study nothing of significance. You study how to take one particular exam.

But okay. This time I’m playing your stupid game. I bought one of these very positively reviewed GRE prep guides. It cost me $25 and I downloaded it directly to my iPod Touch. Actually, it’s a groovy little app, and it’s been very helpful. But it is essentially a bloated cheat-sheet, full of tricks designed to inure you to the test structure. Now, right there, something’s already not right. If it was really about intelligence, no one would have access to the rules; these books would be banned. We’d all have to go in like newborns and figure the damned thing out on the spot. But instead I see things like “The analogies portion of the verbal section falls into X number of basic question types. Here is an explanation of all the different question categories…” and on and on like this. I feel like a pervert reading this shit.

Incidentally, this is the exact same problem Korea has with English. Koreans fervently study English. But they don’t learn how to talk or write; they learn how to pass the TOEIC. They take classes whose specific aim is how to beat the structure, how to crack the code. This is why the overwhelming majority of Koreans can’t engage in a simple conversation in English. They don’t learn the fucking language. They learn how to beat the exam.

I take the GRE in 10 days in Osaka. I’ve been studying my ass off, and becoming bitter and resentful in the process, because I’ve got far more important things I could be doing right now. If I get 1,200 it will be a miracle. But if somehow I do, I’m not going to be proud. I’m going to feel broken, because I’ll know that the only thing I did was waste my time jumping through someone else’s hoops.

Trivial pursuits

Posted in Academics, Expat life, Korea, Personal, Travel, USA on September 18, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Trivia seems to be a big thing for foreigners in Korea. A couple of bars have trivia nights and it’s a very popular event. More specifically, trivia seems to be for long-time foreigners who mostly like hanging out with other long-time foreigners and who are married or firmly attached. I suppose it’s the modern-day, younger version of our grandparents’ bingo nights.

I hate trivia. It’s not for the reasons above, although I do not (really) fit the demographic. It’s that it makes me feel stupid. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting myself voluntarily into a situation to make me feel dumb as a doorknob. A fairly new friend asked me recently if I have OCD. She noticed how I cleaved my two sunnyside eggs into equal parts to lay them perfectly upon my oval-shaped pieces of toast. Yes, I suppose I do. I thought about this for the rest of the day. Whatever OCD I have it gets stronger the older I get.

Trivia is a form of test-taking, and test-taking is a nightmare for people with OCD, at least in my case. I see a question and I immediately break it down: I look at the phrasing of the question and single out bad word choices or incorrect grammar. I start thinking about the reasons behind the question; is this distinctly American? If the answer isn’t immediately apparent, I go into panic attacks. Should I know this? Do other people know it? Then the real trouble begins — I get paranoid. It’s a trick question. This answer seems likely, but maybe the test-takers are fucking with me. Then I panic. I come to see the wisdom and potential arguments in all (or many) of the possible answers. That’s the point when I give up, stop caring, and just pick something. Usually I get the answer wrong, sometimes even when I know the answer (that trick question mind-fuck). Dammit. Can we talk about this? No, we move on to the next question.

What’s the point of all this? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about going back to grad school to get my PhD. To get into a good graduate school you have to take something called the Graduate Record Examination or GRE. The exam is divided into three parts: a quantitative section (math — primarily algebra, geometry, and word problems), verbal section (vocabulary, reading comprehension), and a writing section (two essays). Each section is timed and the whole thing takes about 3.5 hours to complete. I took the GRE about six years ago before I went to get my Master’s degree. I bombed it of course, except for the writing part. I knew it while I took it, and I hated myself for days afterward.

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Posted in Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Personal, Sports, Technology, USA on September 16, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Another September, another NFL season begins. The NFL is one of the very few indulgences that I miss dearly from living in the U.S. It was an important part of my weekend routine: wake up Sunday, make coffee, turn on the 10 am game, relax on the couch, let the caffeine kick in, do some chores around the house as the games continued, etc. Football means nothing to the vast majority of Koreans, who are primarily interested in baseball, with progressively receding (can I say that?) interests in soccer and basketball. When I first got here I couldn’t find it anywhere and lived through highlights.

The next season, last year, I found one place playing games over the internet, but only live. 10 am Sunday Pacific time is 2 am Korea time. That doesn’t work. But when the playoffs rolled around, a brand new foreigner bar in Haeundae got the NFL Sunday Ticket thingy. They broadcast them on a delay, showing Saturday and Sunday games the following night. An ethical code was born: If you know, don’t tell. Simple as that. And it worked. Either everyone averted their eyes from internet news for the whole day, or no one spilled the beans. I saw five playoff games in a crowded bar and didn’t know the outcomes until I watched them unfold on the screen.

As an indication of how quickly things change here, there are now three bars (at least) showing not just playoffs, but regular season games, using the same model. There’s the original in Haeundae (Sunset Lounge) and two in Kyungdae (HQ and Evas, which both opened only a few months ago). All three bars have the NFL Sunday Ticket, which is far from perfect, but for the most part it works.

Eva’s is a great bar with the best pub food in the city, so I went there for the season opener on Friday night (what was in the States the Thursday night game). There was a good crowd and the Steelers won, so I was happy. Monday night I went back at around 7 for the Sunday games. I was the only one there that early, so I got to pick the game: Chicago at Green Bay. At first, it was just me and a bartender girl, who had no clue what was going on. I taught her the best I could in simple English words. Keep the other team out of your area, move into the other team’s area. OK, now that there’s a safety. The quarterback got tackled in his goal. That’s two points. There’s a field goal, that’s three points. See that quarterback for Chicago? He keeps throwing the ball to the other team. That’s bad. What’s second and seven mean? Um… OK, they have to make 10 yards (you know yards? like a meter.) in four plays. Then they get another four chances to make another 10 yards. Oh, OK. I don’t think she got it. But she seemed mildly entertained. Every time there was a close up of a player showboating after a big defensive play she’d laugh and say “So cute,” which, in itself, was cute.

Eventually, toward the end of the game, regulars started flowing into the bar. After Aaron Rogers threw that beautiful bomb to Donald Driver to win the game, we tried to launch another one. But the site stopped working. It refused to load another game. HQ and Sunset have apparently had the same problem. From what I hear demand is higher than bandwidth supply and it’s created a logjam. Making matters worse, doesn’t have any support, so there’s no way to get answers or solutions.

Hopefully things will get worked out, they’ll clear the tubes, and we’ll be able to see all the games we want. It’s still not the same as waking up to morning football. But what I lack in that regard, I gain in the communal aspect of enjoying it at the neighborhood pub with a few friends and regulars.

Go Steelers.