The 4 Things People Talk About When They Find Out I Live In South Korea
It starts like this:
I’m back home visiting the States and out and about as it’s generally when I have a social life. I try to cram in as much time as I can visiting everyone I know. Invariably I’ll meet someone I don’t know and it comes out in conversation that I live in South Korea at which point they’ll slip into a script where they mistake things they’ve heard about South Korea for knowing something about South Korea. It’s like they can’t help themselves, and they have to tell me right now about one of these four things:
1. North Korea and/or the Korean War. It’ll be about the war if it’s an older guy because that’s the war the guys my dad’s age remember from when they were kids. MacArthur will get mentioned. If it’s a younger person they’ll go on and on about North Korea cribbing from Vice documentaries.
2. Asian Sex Tourism. This is always a younger guy and he’s incapable of not sharing everything he knows about sex tourism. I find it best to back away from these people and leave them as quickly as possible.
3. Plastic Surgery. Mostly women bring this up. And they may or may not bring up foot-binding as well. This is what I term an obsession with an obsession. And you can generally throw a wrench in the works by asking them if they think getting braces is plastic surgery. At least with this one I can have a conversation.
4. Dog Eating. Not as common as the above three, but still on the list. As with the Korean War and sex tourism when someone starts down this road I can actually see their eyes gel over as the obsessional script-worm burrows through their psyche and erupts from their mouth.
The Bookstore Post
Last week I spent over a quarter of a million Korean dollars on books. It’s actually only about 400 USD, but it sounds cooler as a quarter of a million bucks. At the time I quipped that this only increased the likelihood of my opening a bookstore café here in South Korea, because eventually we will have too many books and what else am I going to do?
Have you ever read Lavie Tidhar’s Osama?
It’s a great pulpy novel, but I’m not sure if my amazement of it is transferable to others unless you’ve lived overseas as an expat.*
“Alfred was a man full of stories; now he filled his life with those of others, the small shop filled with worn and battle-weary books that had seen more of the world in their time, he liked to say, than he had and, like himself, had finally come to rest, for a while at least.”
It might be hard to get unless you’ve absorbed that ambiance of random books hoofed into a foreign country and left behind by carefree, downsizing backpackers, of going into a bar or burger joint and seeing if they have a shelf of cast-off Penguin classics, or maybe you’ve had a mental conversation like this one my buddy Gord Sellar outlined:
“Huh, well, I suppose I could read some Tom Clancy, since this Alvin Toffler looks a little like a retread of his last book, and I’m not interested in the bodice ripper. I wish whoever bought the books I brought for trade-in would bring in a few of theirs so I’d have something to buy.”
It’s a world made of cast-offs. You find yourself reading anything you can find. And you’re reminded by how disposable books are (unless you’ve lived in a big city where you can regularly find books tossed out in the trash). They’re what most people leave behind when they divest themselves of access baggage.
Every city that boasts a marginally sized English speaking expat community will slowly start to accumulate books. Whether in a bar or a café, you’ll find a shelf. Tired old paperbacks, the hip authors from the decade before, the disposable pulp novels, and the ones someone read to improve themselves. Stuff you never knew existed like the works of Stephen Leather or the foreign to you analogs. (Quick, who is Australia’s answer to Michael Chabon? Australians, no helping.)
And if you’re a reader what happens? You accumulate more, and think, maybe I should consolidate the cast offs. Maybe I should be the person with the shelf instead of the shitty frathouse bar. And since I’m at it, I’ll make it a nice place to hang out. Maybe let people tutor here or get a cup of coffee.
And that’s how it happens.
Another English language bookstore gets born.
* I recognize expat is a loaded term. Right now my definition is an expat lives in a foreign country expecting to leave it at some point. An immigrant lives in a foreign country with the expectation of settling there. And there’s likely overlap between the two.
The First 2013 Post
The big thing: My story “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” got a nod from Lois Tilton, one of Locus Magazine’s short fiction reviewers, on her Best of the Year post. You can read her post here.
And, if you’re inclined, you can read the story about urban sorcerers in a decaying city here.
I’m always a bit squeamish about linking to good reviews, because I think in general you should ignore reviews and just keep on keeping on with what you want to do. Don’t let other people define who you are and all that, but… well… it wasn’t like I had a great year publishing-wise, so if I’m tooting my own horn, at least it’s a small horn.
Writing-wise, I wrote a shitastic novel, started two others, wrote five new stories, and sold one (so I’ll have something new coming out in 2013). I received 25 rejection letters and wrote something like 300K words this year. It might be more — significantly so. I don’t have an exact figure because two weeks back I spilled a cup of tea on my laptop, and since there are no Mac stores nearby in South Korea, I’ve been using an old netbook while at home, and the netbook doesn’t have the spreadsheet on it where I track all these things because I am on of those people who tracks data “for fun”, having worked at office jobs for too long and chewed too many paint chips as a child.
Not sure how many books I read this year, something like 50+. I track all that junk at Goodreads, along with keeping a list at home, but it’s on that other computer, you know the one that’s an inert metal slab at the moment.
One great thing about 2012 was finding folks to game with here in South Korea. The Vaults of Ur have been a hoot to run. I might branch out and run a more political game this year — but we’ll see, because I’ve got another novel project I’m keen to work on and that’s where I plan on keeping my attention for the next six months.
In 40 hours I board a plane to the USA. While I’m there I hope to have the inert metal slab returned to functioning computer status.
Yesterday I took part in a Polar Bear Plunge. It was great fun, and I recommend it. Seriously. Tomorrow I’ll likely run around like mad trying to do all the junk I put off doing before my trip.
I finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last night. It’s an amazing book. You should read it.
Mr. Good Morning
Here’s a story.
I used to pass this guy every morning on my way to work at this certain streetlight. He’d be on a bike and I’d be walking.
He was an older Korean guy wearing a baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, always casually dressed but super neat like if it were raining he’d be riding the bike one handed holding an umbrella with the other, and the open umbrella would be perfectly parallel to the road, not held sloped or slanted like you or I or any other slob would.
Anyway, he always said “Good Morning” to me, so that’s the name I gave him. He was like my alarm clock. If I didn’t see him on my way to work, I knew I’d be late.
But in the past few months there’s been all this construction near work and I’ve had to detour past the place where we usually met, so I hardly see him. I still do but it’s rare and no matter when I do, he always breezes by me on his bike saying “Good Morning.” This even happened once on a Saturday afternoon.
So I told Jin about the guy and she thought it was amusing. But then earlier this week we were coming out of the supermarket and there the guy was in his track suit and wearing a cravat (and baseball cap). It was nighttime, he said “Good Morning”, and we stopped and chatted with him. Turns out the guy’s a retired master ship’s surgeon from the Korean Navy who works as a school crossing guard, which is where he’s always going in the morning. He also thought I was from Uzbekistan. Jin was more than a little amused by that, and after we left she said, “You know that guy’s now going to take you out drinking.”
That might be interesting.
I Can Tell When My Students Have Seen Star Wars
I can tell when my students have seen Star Wars because they’ll walk up to me and say, “I’m your father!” which inevitably escalates to, “No, I’m your grandfather.”
“No, I’m your grand-grand-grand-grand father.”
“No, I’m — I’m your ghost!”
At which point I look them in the eye and say, “No, I’m you.”
And their minds explode.
Winding It Down
My vacation’s about over. I’m in Boston until Thursday when I’ll once more enter the air travel relay race and fly back to Korea. It’s been a great trip. I’ve had time to catch up with family and friends, and in between all the running around and socializing I got to be pretty damn lazy. No complaints there. Now to figure out how to fit that pile of books above into my suitcases.
All of which is to say things are still on hiatus here.
There’s likely to be a lack of posts while I’m visiting the USA.
My flight was more or less fine. The whole thing “door to door” took close to 30 hours. I think only 15 of those hours involved being on an airplane. The rest was spent in transit or sitting around. No highlights, except for the leg early on between Korea and Japan where the woman seated beside me burst into tears halfway through the flight. Yeah… fun times.
More From Disorienting Encounters
“There is no better way of obtaining useful information than by mixing with people. According to a wise saying of the ancients: “The eye never tires from seeing, nor the ear from hearing.”
Therefore, I decided with the help of God to blacken these pages with what I saw and heard during this voyage, be it clear or obscure. For I am but a woodgatherer of the night, the one who lags behind, a horse who is out of the race.”
– Disorienting Encounters: Travels of a Moroccan Scholar in France in 1845 – 1846. The Voyage of Muhammad As-Saffar
One Week From Now…
I’ll be aboard an airplane cooped up in economy class making my way to Boston. To my surprise packing hasn’t started yet. When I think about packing it’s mostly trying to think of what books I want to read on the airplane. My clothes… eh…
Last week I taught some camps. It went well. Next week I will teach some more camps then Saturday will arrive and I’ll give my wife a kiss, board a bus, then a plane, then another plane, and another plane. At some point I’ll be in Osaka at another San Francisco. Then I’ll be in Boston.