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Intangible Mandu

[The following poem, called “Intangible Mandu”, is something that I’ve wanted to write for the last several months. About a week ago I finally got it done. I hope it makes you smile, and maybe gives you a taste of something… Enjoy!] 🙂

 
The night when I tasted the most profound thing in the universe
started with me,
and a philosopher
and a food critic
in lonely South Korea.

Late at night, while lost in Seoul,
we stumbled into a mandu place
that I have been unable to find since,
despite my constant searching.

Mandu, the food critic explained, is a Korean style dumpling dish
that is known for being incredibly bland and ordinary,
with nothing new to offer the culinary world,
since it was created hundreds of years ago.

It was in the face of such mundanity
(and such expectations)
that I got my first taste.

They came out on a little hot plate, with metal chopsticks
and a bottle of soju, the Korean alcoholic drink of choice,
that tastes like sour sadness.

A country’s cuisine, the philosopher explained,
while gesturing with the soju bottle,
reflects a kind of shared experience, a history,
and the secret pulse of all the humans that have tasted it.

I rolled my eyes,
poured the philosopher his first drink,
knocked back my own Soju shot,
and popped the mandu in my mouth.

For the first bite, it tasted a little overcooked,
a little mushy,
then a chill ran down my shoulders…

All of reality stabbed its way through my neurons
in a single sweaty instant
that shook my vision
and tensed every muscle in my body at once.

The food critic was saying something about how “proletariat” the mandu was
and the philosopher was downing his fifth shot,
so neither one of them saw my pupils dilate
as the esoteric flavor of life itself ran over my tongue.

I tried to say “that mandu was good”,
but it came out as
“That mandu was God”,
which made the food critic laugh,
and the philosopher stare at me, as if he knew EXACTLY
what I was talking about.

He swallowed his sixth soju shot, and explained that
all of Korea, and in fact, hints of all human experience
can be ever so slightly tasted
in the fermented flavor of complex kimchi,
the traditionally mushy mandu,
and the strong sadness of soju.

I greedily ate another
and another,
but they tasted just like dull dumplings,
with no secrets to show me.

The food critic spat his out
and left in disgust,
slamming the door behind him,
right as the philosopher downed his tenth shot
and passed out right there,
falling out his chair,
and leaving me to pay the bill.

I asked for one more plate.
I wanted mul mandu
(dumplings filled with water)
truly the blandest and most flavorless thing I could order.

In my last piece of mandu,
which was a little mushy,
I tasted everything,
simultaneously.

My taste buds flitted through all of history.
I’m pretty sure I tasted dinosaurs,
before moving to all the more complicated emotions,
the tang of doubt, the spice of discomfort,
the cold burn of melancholy…

Then, things between the mushy mul mandu and I got weird.

I tasted myself,
my essence, reflected back at me,
in a moment of strangely beautiful
etherial self-cannibalism.

I woke up in the hospital
with a soju hangover
no money,
and wordless memories
of intangible mandu.

In a desperate attempt to replicate the sublime,
I always try to find that place….

Over and over again,
I’ll wander into a mandu place, drink some soju sadness,
and always be disappointed to discover
only the current
mushy
moment.

 

 

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Four months.

I’m officially one third through my time here in Korea. That’s hard to wrap my head around. Sometimes it does feel like a fairly good amount of time has gone by, but other times it feels like it’s all just a blur. Speaking of blurs and intangible things, I have another thing to celebrate in addition to my four month anniversary.

My dreams have started to take place here.

It took quite a while, but I guess my subconscious mind has gotten comfortable at last. Now don’t worry, I’m not going to go on a long explanation about my first Korean dream (it involved a SWAT team invading my apartment to investigate the light in my fridge) and I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself here like a true self indulgent blogger. Still, I think your dreams moving to another side of the world four months after everything else is a good bit of oddness that is worth mentioning.

Does this mean I’m more moved in than ever before? Am I becoming more Korean? Is this a signal that I’ll never want to leave? Do I now ENJOY Bubble Pop? [Linked again, in case you dodged it the first time].

If I’m going to do any reflecting during this four month post, I’ll say that I’ve been very level headed about my time here. I’m not in an absolute hurry to leave, but I’m not trying to find excuses to stay here forever. It’s been a very valuable experience so far in a bunch of different ways.

I’ve had this thought for a while, but I haven’t been sure exactly where to mention it. When I was first considering coming here for a year, one of the particularly horrifying thoughts that popped up was “what if I hate it after one month and want to leave?”. I justified this to myself as a character building exercise, reminding myself that many people have to spend huge amounts of time with their regular life in limbo. I thought of exchange students, prisoners, and international businessmen. If those assholes could tough it out, so could I.

Now, luckily for me, I don’t really have to work hard to keep my chin up or anything like that. Things have been quite comfortable and easy going here. I’m glad I don’t have to count the days by scratching a tally on the wall of my apartment each night. That is one of the ways I convinced myself though: “Ahh, if you hate it, there are people who need to stick it out for much longer than one year somewhere”.

I got all my character building done in imagining the character building exercise. That’s great, because I hate building my (non Diablo) character.

As I write this, Bubble Pop has been playing in the background from when I linked it. I’m wondering if the prevalence of this song has something to do with my dreams migrating here. Maybe the K-pop has hacked into my brain and reassured me on another plane of consciousness.

The Kimchi though? I still don’t get the Kimchi.

I’d promise more reflections at the six month mark, but I imagine they’ll be rather similar. You’ll get to hear them if they’re different. I intend to play Starcraft II for at least a couple hours today, so maybe you’ll get to hear my thoughts on the Korean ladder soon.

K-town back in K-town

I’m back and over my jet lag! Surprisingly, I managed to travel through six different airports in my time off and I had only one very mild delay (20 minutes, if that). The visit home was, as I keep saying, worth it. Now I have eight more months here before I see the “real world” as I know it again. Life is going back on pause.

Oh, and although my geek celebration on the 28th was great, I missed New Years entirely. I was in between timezones on the 31st, so the day just disappeared in the alchemy of time changes.

How’s stuff here? It’s busy. It’s a new term, so we’ve got new students, new classes, and new subjects. I’ve picked up several writing and reading courses, making my job a whole lot more interesting. The new students are mostly adorable. You can smell their fear.

More importantly though, I’m teaching literature now. No wait, more importantly, I’m teaching Le Petit Fucking Prince (translated and de-cussed as The Little Prince, for those of you who prefer freedom fries). It’s kind of really awesome. Am I going to be completely indulgent and rambling in classes? Yesss… I won’t be able to help it. But am I going to make them love and treasure this story so that they look back on it fondly when they’re old, with a single tear in their very Korean eyes? Yes… they won’t be able to help it.

I’m still teaching debate too, which I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at by now. It’s still an odd experience. Remember that one class that you used to hate in school because the teacher used to make you talk and participate? The one you used to dread going to since you knew you’d be sweating in your seat the whole time just praying that you can sneak through without being called on and possibly humiliated in front of the group? That’s MY class, boys and girls!

One other thing is worth quickly mentioning: I had a better Christmas than EVERYONE.

I’ve been asking many of the students around the school how their Christmas break went, and every single one of them, without exception, said “ohhh it was badd…” Many of them studied. Many of them still had school. The vast majority didn’t get presents or turkey or candy. The best ones said that they just sat at home and watched TV. I asked my coworkers too, it sounds like they don’t have the same level of badass traditional family Christmas that I do. That made me sad. Some of my students (the older ones, who don’t shy away from making fun of me) asked me something along the lines of “aren’t you too old for Christmas?”

No? Too old for Halloween, maybe… Too old for Christmas? Is that a thing? That can happen? A thing that can happen?

Maybe I should make a blog category for “Kevin is an immature manchild” so that I can sort these better. Or maybe these kids just need to grow some fun and learn how to Christmas.

Home in the ‘Fax Machine.

The title of this post contains the most obnoxious possible nickname I invented for Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m determined to make it catch on.

I was surprised at how easy the trip here was. I was half hoping that everything involving my trip would go wrong, just to make for an incredibly contrived and riveting blog post about airline delays. I had three flights in a single day, but it all went beautifully. There weren’t even many babies on the planes.

I even managed to sleep for half of the endlessly long flight to Toronto from Beijing. I arrived home full of energy and pep, excited for Christmas. I slept a bit, then got up early, had a nice big breakfast, and then opened presents with my family.

And then a wave of tiredness hit me HARD at around 3pm and everything went wrong. I’ve started a horrible jet lag pattern and I’m doing my very best to fix it. It’s awful.

Christmas though? Christmas was great. I got lots of nifty presents! I have plenty of books and games and nerdy shit now! My big ticket item of the year was a Kindle Fire, which will serve me quite well in my travels. English books are somewhat expensive and hard to come by, they take up lots of luggage space, and they’re rather flammable. I need the format of my books to be just as nerdy as the content contained within them!

Seriously though, it’s pretty awesome. I also got some real dead tree type books and some real dead tree type board games and stuff. Oh and some geeky shirts. Oooh, and noise cancelling headphones, which will be good for walking around Korea and pretending that everyone speaks English.

On the 28th of December, I’ll be having my traditional New Years celebration. I need to be back in Korea for the actual evening of the 31st. For those who don’t know, I traditionally ring in the new year in the most geeky and over the top way possible. Usually it’s a LAN party that stretches over 24 hours, often closer to 48 hours. During this time three of my closest friends play an unbelievable amount of video games, subsist entirely on pizza and junk food, and usually watch the Street Fighter movie.

It’s kind of the best possible way to end or start a year.

This year we’re forecasting League of Legends and Starcraft II in the morning, some experimental Team Fortress 2 action in the afternoon, with a slight chance of Left 4 Dead 2 and moderate showers of M.U.L.E. All of this will lead into a 100% chance of Minecraft and/or Civilization V, which will carry into the following morning.

If you happen to live in the ‘Fax Machine and you want to see me, contact me! I’m not here long, and I might be busy (or I might dislike you), but take a chance and get in touch anyway 😛

 

Merry Christmas. Have pictures. Fun with signs – part 2!

I hope all your Christmas traditions were well observed this holiday season. You know what my favorite tradition is? When the people you know sit you down and force you to look at pictures. This will function as Fun With Signs, part 2 as well.

Let’s start with a picture that I had to grab while in an elevator. I was a bit nervous about the rules of proper elevator usage, but this series of cartoons definitely calmed me down.

Calm as hindu cows

I'm not sure why they're going UP the stairs in a fire...

I show you most of these signs and pictures out of context, since that’s more or less how I experience them. This next one does have actual context, but it’s so much more amusing without it. So, here’s some context free existential graffiti, just for you.

Ceci n'est pas une Korea.

This next poster is from a Korean subway. This one was actually on the inside of a bathroom stall. I’m finding gold with the wacky signs everywhere, folks! Anyway, I know this one is fairly confusing and difficult to read, but I know a bit of Korean, so let me translate. See, the subway cars in Seoul are racially segregated. Koreans (shown in blue) are put in one car while foreigners (white, obviously), are kept separate. This is probably to keep us from stealing their women.

Either that, or the white people are the hip ones with iPods and other Apple products.

This one was taken in a rather expensive chocolate store in Itaewon. You can find out more about them by reading their marketing blurb below.

I'm glad the gateway to happiness is so well worded. Their etc. is particularly delicious.

Another bathroom sign! This one is from another dessert place (DON’T JUDGE ME!).

After encouraging it into the toilet bowl, I motivated my hands clean and then impelled them dry.

I WISH I could give you context for the last one. I really do… I’ve asked everyone I know what this sign could possibly mean. Nobody knows.

I'm guessing they sell blow up dolls.

Anyway, that was Fun with Signs Part 2. I’m going to have more fun with signs in the future, I’m sure. Merry Christmas!

The Whitest of Christmases

Today, I stand atop a pile of time (one of the most combustible substances on Earth), and strike a match.

I’m flying home for Christmas. I’m going to be knackered and zonked and all those other words that you only pull out for when you’re really fucking tired.

Will it be worth the ridiculous travel time? I’m fairly confident that it will be, but there’s only one way to find out for sure.

As for the last two posts on here, you will get them as soon as I can post them. If you’re in North America, they will probably roll in sometime on Christmas day. If you’re in Korea, it’ll be Boxing Day (though I’ve been shocked to discover that Boxing Day is not a thing for most people in the world).

One of the posts will contain the pictures I’ve been meaning to post for ages.

So, why am I going all the way home just for 6 days of Christmas? Is Christmas taken really seriously in my household or something? Do I have a massive family full of visiting aunts and uncles and cousins that can’t wait to pinch me on the cheek and ask me if kimchi contains dog?

No, not particularly.

I’m pretty sure it’ll just be my small immediate family at the house this year. However my family has never been truly apart on Christmas, and I’d hate to be the one to break the trend. Ideally, I’d like my sister to be the first one to be in some far away place, so that I can forever hold it over her that she was the first one to “ruin Christmas”. 😛

Maybe that’s the other thing. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, and as you probably know if you know me, I still love many childlike types of fun. I hate growing out of things and saying goodbye to things. This also might veer into the territory of some sort of mild compulsive disorder of some sort, but if I enjoy something, I want it to be endlessly repeatable, if possible.

It’s not quite just nostalgia. Nostalgia is when you get out old VHS tapes of Christmas specials from when you were a kid (complete with commercials, of course) and you think back to the way you first experienced watching them. This is like if you got those tapes out and just watched them, just in an honest attempt to experience it again. You want as little “oh I remember when” type stuff as possible, because that’s acknowledging that it’s over.

Now I’ve never done that Christmas special thing. That would be creepy. I’m just trying to explain this.

But that’s part of why my room is full of books, and why I’m such a movie and game nerd. Books and movies have a tendency to change over time when you revisit them, but games are the most purely constructed experience vaults I can think of, especially old ones. Because they’re light on story and high on raw physical and mental experience (not to mention repetition), they provide an experience that can indeed be repeated endlessly, with or without nostalgia.

I got off on a tangent there as I explored that idea in my head a bit. So that is why I’m going home for Christmas.

Because I CAN go home again.

Inhibited.

It’s about time we have an alcohol update.

When I arrived in Korea, I had never drank much alcohol at all in my life and never been truly drunk. The first night I was here, I was trying to learn the intricate secrets of Korean dining while staring at this shot of Soju on the hopelessly crowded table. It wasn’t the best way to be introduced to the country, the Soju, or alcohol in general, but I was a sport and I partook.

I’ve had a few more drinks here and there, in various situations. I still don’t see the appeal.

A few weeks ago the staff at my hagwon went out to dinner, since a member of management was leaving to become a director at a new school elsewhere in Korea. Everyone got ridiculously hammered and ended up at a Noraebang, which is like Karaoke if it was in private rooms instead of a bar. I was “just going with it” like a champ. I watched all the teachers, managers, and secretaries doing the most awful drunken renditions of various Korean and American pop songs for a good hour or so, just wishing I could escape the situation gracefully.

And I had had a few. I was uncomfortably intoxicated at this point (not sick or anything, but definitely not having any more), and I was nowhere near the level of drunken idiocy that they were. Everyone was coming over to me, asking if I was okay, asking what’s up, telling me I looked miserable.

<Kevin’s drunken inner voice will be presented in italics, for your viewing pleasure>

“No no guys, I’m fine, really”. But I’m never going to be like you.

Then I started to spiral around in my head, thinking about the strength of my inhibitions and about letting go of them. I was trying to figure out if I could ever leave my own head for long enough to do something that I knew I would regret the next morning. I wondered if my inhibitions were so welded to my personality that if I ever truly let go, I’d lose my grasp on everything.

Then I thought, why can’t I let go of my inhibitions though? Even in this 60-70% drunk state, why can’t I feel the unbelievable fun in the air right now? Am I fundamentally an inhibited person? Listen to all these questions, man! These people are NOT asking these questions right now! 

I’m the only thing I can control in this world. Why would I ever want to lose control of that? Why can’t you? It’s so easy for them.

This was only singing like an idiot, too. This was leaving aside questions of true adult drunkenness. I realize this is child’s play that most of you got out of your systems when you were still not allowed to drink legally.

But I just don’t see the fun in this. I’ve been the only sober person at a party full of drunks. It’s fucking awful, but all of them will tell you, while leaning on your shoulder way too hard and with booze on their breath, “Dude, you just need to be drunk too! Then it’s fun!” No, not even then.

I think fun, for me anyway, is still a very simple and childlike concept. Stumbling around, vomiting, and doing things that you’ll hate yourself for doing never seemed like fun to me.

Hey, at least I’m giving it the ol’ college try. More alcohol updates in the future… maybe.