Alarm Clocks are for Zombies

Next week is the last week of term and I expect I’ll have something to say about how close I am to the end of my time in Korea. But in the meantime, I still have another week. This week was less than ideal at work insofar as I had two combined classes, taught a class of third graders in a level I’ve never taught before, and had another class mostly as normal except in a random different classroom and which suddenly combined to double its size for the last half hour.

All in all, not huge burdens or anything but frustrating. A general theme I’ve noticed at my workplace (and which seems to be a common mindset in Korea) is to approach problems as if they only had one dimension. You choose what thing is the most important and you make that look the way you want without considering anything else. Which is frustrating because it means there are easier and simpler solutions that are overlooked. I get that this is for-profit education so money comes first. I hate it, but I understand. Sometimes, though, it’s just straightforward efficiency and time management issues.

Anyway, it’s my first full-time job and I’ve obviously joined the ranks of workers who think they know better than their bosses. Though I’m pretty sure I do, whatever.

On the plus side, though, I had a surprise day off on Wednesday which is always nice. I didn’t do much, surprise. I had a nice, brisk walk (it’s gotten pretty cold here) but nothing too arduous, just around town. I picked up some fancy groceries just because I could–pasta, cream sauce, and fig jam. Highly recommend. Mostly, I just lazed around and slowly went about a few household chores that I had been putting off. It was the right balance, enough to make me feel productive but little enough to let me feel rested.

Our topic today in my debate class was world government but I didn’t really like the lesson so, after doing obligatory lesson things, we had a debate on the proposition ‘War is always wrong.’ And my students (there were only four today) actually had some really good ideas. I helped provide them with some historical examples for both sides but they did quite a bit of work on their own, I was impressed with their maturity. These are mostly sixth graders. Though I did have to stiffle a laugh when, in their speech, a student talking about the US Civil War described slavery as “doing a lot of hard works, listening to bad words, and not being treated as human.”

Kind of funny but also I’m glad that they know enough about the world to say, without my prompting in any way, that slavery treated people as less than human.

You may recall that a few months ago I wrote about the mysterious alarm clock in my neighbor’s apartment that was on for like a day straight. Well, it was back again this week. Starting on Tuesday morning at 9:30 and ending sometime while I was at work, which means at least four and a half hours of beep-beep-beep. But at least it wasn’t overnight like last time.

My explanations then were murder and zombies, a brief recurrence later in the week seeming to suggest the latter. This week’s episode confirms the theory and, I think, zombies must just be heavy sleepers. Because there is no other possible explanation. Zombies.

Though honestly it doesn’t sit well with me that zombies have enough going on in their lives (unlives?) that they need to set alarms. No rest for the wicked, I guess. But are zombies really wicked, if it’s an infection that you can’t choose to get and then suddenly you have a need for brains?

I don’t know. These are the questions that occupy my time. At least I can say I’m together enough as a person, and have leisurely enough mornings, that I don’t use an alarm. In fact, the only alarm I hear in this building is the zombie’s alarm.

Take from that what you will.

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Sea

I haven’t been up to much this week so I’ll just give you a bit of a rundown of the last little bit of my Chuseok break, following up from last week.

I did make it out to Incheon on Friday and I had a really nice time. It was sort of a chilly, blustery sort of day which caught me unexpectedly as the previous day had been hot and sunny. It was about an hour and a half on the subway to get there, but a significant portion of the trip was aboveground and afforded me some pleasant scenery once we got out of the thick of Seoul. Of course, it’s pretty continuous city between Seoul and Incheon but there are many green places in between where the cities mostly leave off for a bit.

My goal for the day was vague, I wanted to see Central Park and the sea. Other than that, I just figured I’d wander around a bit and find somewhere to read for a while. Emerging from the Central Park subway exit, I found myself in a pleasant little space in the midst of more modern, prettier highrises than the ones I’m accustomed to in Seodaemun.

The park itself was a pleasant little waterway with green spaces on either side. There was even a small cruise boat of sorts that could carry you the length of the passage, though the canal section is only about one kilometer long. There were statues and pathways with flowers and plentiful benches. Most of the glory of the summer, I’m sure, was lost by the time I made it out, but it was still reasonably decked out. I sat down across from a group of (bronze?) urinating boys, as one does, and took out my Dostoyevsky to catch up since I’ve been slacking. I had some convenience store kimbap and tea. So I passed a while and it was nice.

After a bit, I got up and decided to walk down the road to the water–the actual ocean water, not the canal. It turned out to be much farther away than I thought but it wasn’t super long. The first ten minutes or so of the street passed through a forest of apartment buildings under construction, this time the plain, unattractive ones I’m used to. It was kind of spooky, actually: the five lane road next to me was almost totally deserted, the street lights were out at several intersections, the windowless holes in the towers peering down like little hollow black eyes. On a grey, slightly blustery day that looked and felt like five or six in the evening starting around 1 o’clock. I loved it.

The second ten minutes went through a section of completed apartments that, while no more attractive, were at least a little more homey-looking. The small, landscaped areas in front were complete and unobscured by construction miscellanea. People were a little more common, though still few and far between. There was a school so it didn’t look quite so post-apocalyptic. The trees along the city street (save for the traffic and the trains) rustled gently and redly in the wind.

The last ten minutes ran between a golf course behind a literal and vegetative fence on my right and the National University of Incheon on the left. I didn’t explore there but it seemed like a pretty campus. There were still very few people and cars about and I rather enjoyed the relative isolation after the unceasing closeness of Seoul.

At last, I reached the water at a little park-ish place. I think it was where large pieces of the Incheon bridge were assembled (since, if you didn’t know, Incheon airport is actually on an island). I was above the water and couldn’t find a place to go down to it. I couldn’t smell seaweed or fish or salt. There were very few seagulls and no barnacles. Nonetheless, simply seeing the water was incredibly refreshing. I am a saltwater man through and through and, as I quoted on here a few months ago, to see the sea once is to learn how to miss it.

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to escape the city a second time though, as always, Seoul managed to be visible. I went up with a friend of mine and her family (they’re Korean) and we drove up to Namhansanseong or Namhan Mountain Fortress. It’s a bit of a castle on a hill and it had some splendid views which my rudimentary camera skills were unable to quite capture. But I had a great time. We went to dinner afterwards and it was delicious. All in all a wonderful close to my first Chuseok.

There’s not really much else to report from here. Classes have resumed as normal. I learned that next term’s intensive classes will start on 26 December and I will probably (but maybe there will be a miracle) have to work on Christmas. Which I knew coming here. But still.

And in case you were wondering, obviously I’m always psyched about Christmas but the period of intensifying expectation of the coming of Christmas season is now in full swing. Started probs a month ago. Like, I’m so ready for Christmas. I need it.

추석 (or: A holiday that I don’t feel and important feelings that I do)

It’s impossible for a city with an eight digit population to empty, but the feeling in Seoul during Chuseok (that’s choo-sock) is probably about as close to that as you can get, I figure. As I understand it, things have gotten more relaxed about the holiday of late but even still, and even in Seoul, things are closed and people are gone. There are still millions of people out and about, obviously, but I’d say the majority of businesses outside of like convenience stores are closed. Biggest travel time of the year, it seems, which is in line with the general comparisons to Thanksgiving.

I haven’t talked to loads of Koreans about it, so I can’t say exactly how it’s felt here for actual Korean people. Traditionally, Chuseok is a harvest time festival where you go to your home village and do some ancestor honoring. These days, I think it’s more just a visit family and eat kind of day, though I’m sure there’s plenty of ancestor-related things that still go on. It strikes me as sort of a straightforward family holiday but with none of the special holiday season feeling that I associate with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Gift boxes also seem incredibly popular as gifts to give. Including, if my grocery store is anything to go by, a great deal of Spam gift sets. Which. Hm. We talked about it in class and one of my students just really loves Spam and it kind of hurt me inside but it gave me an excuse to show them the Spam song from Monty Python so everything happens for a reason, I guess.

Anyway, I have some time off! It is of no moment that I had to make up most of this time off and the rest is coming out of my vacation time. Tuesday after work (we blessedly received an extra half day), some of us went out for tacos and churros which were excellent. On Wednesday, I just walked down to the river for a little picnic and reading session. Today, I met a friend for breakfast at a fancy and delicious buffet. Tomorrow, I will go to Incheon because I miss the ocean. And on Saturday, I’m going on a hike with friends. Yay holidays that I don’t celebrate so I can spend time doing whatever I want!

The strange part is having a holiday that doesn’t move you an inch take hold of the whole country around you. Another aspect of being a minority that I’ve never had to experience and a small dose of empathy for the religious and other holiday diversity (especially since I won’t get holidays I do care about off). I think I’ve intimated here more than once how strongly I feel about Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In other Keegan news, today marks the 103rd straight day I’ve done Duolingo and I’m so pleased with myself. I don’t do much each day but hey. My Russian hasn’t totally faded into random words and terrible grammar like my German has. So I’m feeling good about that small, easy piece of self-discipline in my life.

With that, I’d like to turn to something else. I’ve let this blog see some pretty personal things in my life and it’s not a trend I feel able or willing to reverse.

So a couple months ago I wrote a post called Learning to be Proud because I was learning to be proud. But this week I think I was finally taught my first real lesson. Well, second. But. Obviously, the lesson came in the midst of a book because books are powerful.

There are so many people around the world who feel wrong and broken and hurt and confused and scared and worthless because of who they are. People who have been told or even come to believe that their inmost heart of hearts is something disgusting, sinful, and shameful. I am so proud to be gay because being proud is what it takes to refute that. Being proud is what it takes to justify our existence, the simple fact of our lives. Being proud means that I assert my worth as a human being. Being proud means that even when well-intentioned people think, at best, that I’m mistaken or making a poor choice I can say that who I am is who I was made to be.

I had no obstacles to coming out save an irrational and labyrinthine thought process that took me probably a decade to unravel. For many, their obstacles are much more tangible and damaging. I cry big, hot tears for everyone who hurts because of their sexuality or gender identity. I love you. You do not have to justify or explain yourself to me. You are real and valid and valuable and not to be ignored.

I love you I love you I love you.

Equinoctial Ensorcellments

I must admit that I had to look up the adjectival form of equinox. But now I’ve done it so you don’t have to. Now that that’s out of the way.

So the equinox is actually a moment, not a relative phenomenon. Unlike something like an eclipse that moves around as things move around, the equinox refers only to the equator and so only happens once each time. Which is a poor explanation for why I’m used to it being on the 22nd but this year it’s on the 23rd. Because I’m in Korea. And so it’s in the early morning of the 23rd while most of the world is still on the 22nd.

I don’t really care much about it, but it’s a bit of an interesting fact. (Also an interesting fact, the meaning of ‘factoid’ is an interesting fact that is actually false). Ancient peoples, I’m sure you know, often put great emphasis in the various celestial comings and goings and celebrated them in many ways. In Korea, more concerned with the moon than the sun historically, the primary autumn festival is coming quickly upon us in the next couple weeks. More on that as it comes.

The equinox itself is kind of a fun thing, the true beginning of fall (though I often feel like the equinoxes and solstices should mark the middle or like, one third of their respective seasons but whatever). I don’t really have anything mystical to say, but I wanted an alliterative title so I had to say something mysterious. Something evocative of druids or ritual sacrifice or ancient, harvest-helping dances. Anyway, I think that’s enough of that.

Nothing much is happening in my life. Except I feel like I’m having a really good week. My week itself hasn’t been anything particularly pleasant or good, but I’ve just been feeling it, you know? Most of the time, at least. I’ve gotten a couple errands done in the past week or two and so that’s nice. Bigger errands, the sort that have been hanging over my head for a while.

I’ve been reading some too, of course, and that’s been nice. But mostly things have been pretty humdrum here.

Thinking about the equinox, while I’m here, I might as well say a few words. Equal night and all that. My halfway point in Korea wasn’t actually that long ago and I guess I’ll take a moment to examine that.

When I tell people here that I’m planning on staying for a year, they typically say something about that’s how they started and here they are five years later. And I’m just like, no. Maybe it’s the mindset I came here with (though I’m not sure how exactly I’d define that) or maybe it’s just different strokes for different folks, you know? But I’m not cut out for Korea. My time here has not been bad. The food, as long as I avoid the spicy things (as difficult as that often is), is good. My coworkers are cool. Places I visit are cool. But it took essentially zero time for me to decide that I wasn’t going to stay for two years as had been my initial hope (because two years looks nicer on a résumé than one).

I think I’ve taken to teaching fairly well, especially since I don’t have to come up with a curriculum or anything.

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Doesn’t she just look like the epitome of cozy? It’s possible she’s trying to actually turn into a pillow, she moves about as often and she’s just about as squishy.

And with that incredibly sweet kitty, I’ll leave you for the week. The beginning of the end of the year is upon us. It will be November, methinks, before we know it.

The Gift Shop at the Edge of the War

In an atmosphere maybe eight steps down from impending doom (as regards expected missile firings) and a feeling like it was any ordinary day, last Saturday I went to North Korea and lived to tell the tale. The day went sort of like this:

I got up early(ish) to get into the city center to meet up with the tour, made sure I was on the right bus, and drove about an hour to the edge of the civilian control line, a buffer zone created by the south to give the actual DMZ some extra breathing space. And yes, for your reference, all that follows took place really only an hour casual drive from the center of Seoul.

So let me explain a little of the political/military geography of the border area. The border itself is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) because the war is not actually over, they just signed a ceasefire and the ‘border’ became the last point of hostile contact between the armies. A small buffer area on either side of the MDL was created to keep the armies apart for the ceasefire and this is the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. On the southern side, they added an additional barrier zone called the Civilian Control Line (CCL) within which the Korean military is basically in charge, though some normal people do live there. I don’t really understand all the complexities of it (and believe you me it is complex) but that’s the gist.

Anyway, we drove up to the CCL and got our passports cursorily checked by the South Korean army (colloquially known as ROK soldiers for the Republic of Korea–as opposed to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Once inside the CCL, we first went to a train station. This station, on the line from Seoul to Pyongyang, served briefly as a cargo holding area while the two countries were operating the Kaesong Industrial Complex. That was a set of factories financed by Southern companies and mostly worked by Northern employees in an effort at rapprochement. It was shut down after some continuing conflict between the two but may be opened again eventually. The South would really like the rail line to be totally open because it would connect the South by land to China, Russia, and even Europe via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, among others. As it is, however, it’s an empty, though modern, station that serves as the last stop in the South.

Next up was a stop at Tunnel #3. This is a small tunnel fairly deep underground dug by the North under the DMZ in order to support a supposed invasion. It is the third such tunnel found, of four, and who knows how many others there may be, if any. Once discovered, the North obviously collapsed their end and the South put in place cameras and a great deal of dynamite. And then opened it to tourists–but more on that later.

Driving around the CCL, one encounters a great deal of dynamite. It’s typically in big towers next to the road, or else unmarked overpass-type things. These are meant to be exploded in the event of an invasion so as to bloc the road and prevent tanks from taking the highway to Seoul which, you’ll recall, is only an hour away.

The last stop in the morning was an observation post atop a small mountain/hill. From here, you could see the DMZ, the Industrial Park, and the nearest North Korean city. Unfortunately for us, we had some pretty terrible haze that day so our vision was considerably obscured. We could sort of make some things out and I guess that’s going to have to be good enough for me.

After lunch, we made a quick stop at a park just outside the CCL commemorating the bridge across which prisoners of war were exchanged after the ceasefire. Here were an abundance of prayer ribbons and mementos, tokens of families divided and a country of hopefuls wishing for reunification. Obviously, there was a quasi-fair-theme park vibe going on next door, and there were several restaurants (including a Popeye’s) and a convenience store. You could climb up to the roof and look out over the river past the CCL and, in decent weather, perhaps into the DMZ itself.

After a change of bus, we headed back across the CCL and straight on into the DMZ for a brief stop at Camp Boniface, he headquarters of the UN-administered mission along the border. There, we received a little presentation about the history of the zone, events that had occurred at the Joint Security Area (JSA), and what they do there. The JSA is a small complex of buildings that housed negotiations for the ceasefire and a number of talks since. There is a large building for each side and a few small ones in the middle. There is also the set of buildings administered by neutral country observers–the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission or NNSC– since the end of the Soviet bloc Sweden, Switzerland, and sometimes Poland (previously Czechoslovakia was also a member).

Then we hopped on a base bus which took us to the JSA, walked quietly in double file through the ROK building and over to the building in which we could actually cross the MDL and enter the North (in a technical and, let me tell you, very real sense). We took a moment back at Camp Boniface to look through the gift shop and then we were finished. We drove back to Seoul. That was it.

Just before leaving, I was talking with one of the other tourists on my bus, a German chemistry teacher, about how strange it all was. Surreal. Not only the experience itself, crossing into North Korea, but also the whole feeling of the tour. The fact that there was a tour. It somehow (not somehow, very clearly) felt wrong to commodify tragedy and what is literally a war without a peace treaty. And yet, there we both were, participating in said commodification. I even bought a small souvenir, I’m a little ashamed to admit, because I simply couldn’t not.

As much as I’m generally against capitalism (you know what, scratch that ‘generally’) and harbor moderate distaste for democracy, the tour and the numerous gift shops epitomize South Korea. The whole point of the war was Capitalism and Democracy. So it’s fitting that overpriced souvenirs are on sale less than a mile from one of the most dangerous/undangerous places in the world. It makes me uncomfortable but it also makes me marvel at the tenacity of humans who have decided what they believe.

Anyway, it was early evening when I returned, just outside Seoul Plaza. Walking to the metro station there, I saw a great deal of something which, upon investigation, turned out to be a book festival. In the stunning goldish yellow of the last couple hours of daylight, I searched for and found an English-language table of used books and walked away with the Wal-Mart copy of Robinson Crusoe which I’ve never read but think I’ll enjoy when I finally get around to it.

The end of a surreal day, crowned with an impulsive book buy. I’m still not really sure how I feel about everything. In particular, I’m not sure how I feel about the gift shop that’s practically in the middle of a frozen war, but I can’t say it’s disrespectful. It knows exactly what it’s doing.

북한산

Bukhansan is the highest mountain in Seoul at 836 meters, or a little over 2,700 feet. Not monstrous but respectable, especially because it’s the heart of a national park on the fringes of one of the largest cities in the world. If you give it a second, you could probably divine what shapes make the ‘a’ and ‘n’ sounds–and therefore the others too. Maybe.

Anyway, on Saturday I was invited along with a couple friends to hike up the highest peak of Bukansan, Baegundae. The trail started out ‘moderate’ for about an hour, then was ‘advanced’ for about the same, and the final twenty minutes or so were ‘expert’. In this case, moderate referred to a pretty normal trail on a mountain. Advanced meant rough piles of rocks tumbled together in a steep, vaguely stair-like fashion. Expert, which certainly no one there was, consisted primarily of large bare rock faces at extraordinary angles with a rope handrail along one side. I’m probably exaggerating a little because of my relative inexperience, but it was quite a slog.

My goodness, though, the view. I may have mentioned this before, but Seoul is a ginormous city and standing on the summit (a tiny rock surface crowded by a memorial, flagpole, and selfie-takers) was an experience. It was a remarkably clear day and we could see well past the river, something the haze normally bars even from much closer vantage points. That meant the whole park lay like a rumpled green gown beneath us and the city itself showed its off-white endlessness as its claws dug into the small islands of treed hills scattered across the horizon.

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It was a beautiful view, and the mountain was absolutely gorgeous. But it was also kind of hideous to see this human behemoth blanketing what once was certainly an incredible and natural vista. Even the summit itself sported signs of humanity, from the fortress (which seemed silly, no army was going to climb directly over the top of the tallest mountain in the area) to the radio antenna to the power lines that followed much of the trail up. Even the noise–we ate lunch just under the peak facing into the park and when we went back up to go down we suddenly realized the dull roar we had hitherto been tuning out.

But I digress. Yes, it was beautiful. I would recommend it and I would return. There was an amazingly clear stream that followed our rocky trail. We even encountered a pair of mountain kittens on our way back down–we happened to be carrying some tuna leftover from lunch so we watched delightedly as they deigned to come a few steps closer to devour it.

IMG_20170902_132453849 Like I said, it was wonderful. The mountain kittens might be one of my favorite experiences in Korea. But it also just made me sad. You couldn’t escape the city in any direction, on any peak, in any park. Obviously there is plenty of land in Korea outside of cities–it’s maybe even better than in the US since more Koreans live in cities and they generally lack the urban/suburban sprawl that so afflicts North America.

I don’t know, I think I have some oddly complicated feelings about nature. I don’t need to go into them here, it’s whatever.

Anyway, the rest of the week held very little for me. Some more reading, dipping a couple toes back into Netflix but at a more reasonable rate, and not much else. Last week we had Wednesday off, the first in ages, and this week I had phone classes. This time, though, it was the early class and we only had a half day so we finished as seven. And I would ten times out of ten choose phone classes over a one-on-one. But this term is different insofar as I don’t know that Wednesdays will be regular like they were first term. So who knows what I’ll do next week. But they have been promised to be half days except for make-up tests.

Other than that, just settling nicely into the term. Here’s hoping it stays nice.

Apostasy and Un-postasy

The heat, I think, has finally broken. It’s not cool by any means, but being outside no longer feels like death. It’s also still pretty humid, but definitely livable. I’m excited for it to actually be autumn so I can go around and do things again.

That was really the highlight this week–that and the fact that intensives are over, the last day was Tuesday. So that’s a major relief. There’s also only one more week in this term, which is crazy. It also marks my halfway point on my contract, so there’s that. But I’d like to take the bulk of this post to talk about other things, as feeble as my attempt to discuss them may be.

Once again, I find myself in the untenable position where I cannot say nothing but can’t say anything adequate. Others have written much more fully on issues like the Confederate cause (here), Confederate statues (here and here), reactions and likely reactions in government (here and here), and just generally race in the US (here). And loads of others besides. It seems like recent events are almost literally an armed rebellion. A rebellion against the religious and civic foundation of the country that, simultaneously, is perfectly in line with its religious and civic foundation. And that’s really the issue.

A writer for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb, put it succinctly when he said, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say ‘This is not who we are.'”

When we say, “This is not us,” we’re lying.

That’s why I said it’s an apostasy and not at all. Actions like that are so against the story we typically tell about ourselves, but there are perfectly in line with the reality that so many people have faced across time and geography. The great American civil religion is Freedom, Equality, and Justice and the rituals of that religion are and have been Slavery, Inequality, and Injustice. Hate is both an apostasy and an un-postasy.

It’s so awful. And it’s so exacerbated by the reality that nothing is changing, or not much. I exulted a little hearing that Baltimore, in one night, surprised the city by removing all Confederate monuments. But the President, his administration, and Republicans in Congress will do nothing. The general public will do nothing. The majority of individuals (myself included?) will do nothing.

I cannot express how fully I condemn and abhor the violence in Charlottesville. Unfortunately, there is so much more to it than one weekend, one moment of revulsion. There is a system of violence supported by literal millions through actions and words both passive and active. A system that benefits me because I’m a cis white male.

I feel powerless. Guilt doesn’t help anybody, and I’m not sure what I can do. Donate to organizations like the ACLU, attend marches, speak forcefully to my own detriment when people deny the existence or depravity of the pernicious construct of racism that saturates our country.

It feels sort of hollow to preach ‘love’ in a time like this, when so much of me wants to violently tear into something. For all my words, it’s hard to believe that love has, does, and will win. But it’s true nonetheless.

My number one class rule is English Only because that’s a company policy. My number two rule is Be Kind. I say it all the time. So much so that many of my students make fun of me for it, which only makes me say it more, and so on, no one wins. Except I win. Because if I accomplish nothing else, I will have asked, commanded, cajoled, and begged kindness from a few score Korean kids who, perhaps, will be kind when they don’t want to be. And perhaps the scale of the world will tilt one grain or two toward love.

My post from a year ago definitely says what I want much better than the preceding rambles. But I had to say it again because here we are again.

Love only seems weak to people who don’t have enough. And hoping in love is about all I feel empowered to do just now. Hope and love.