Now that I've gotten an "interview" request from Gachon University, how am I doing?
1. Seoul National University, English instructor (just rejected without interview)
2. Seoul National University, editor/proofer/researcher (fell through: app deadline March 3)
3. Chonnam National University, English instructor (interviewed; rejected)
4. Hanyang University, English instructor (rejected without interview)
5. Hansung University, English instructor (no news)
6. HUFS in Yongin, English professor (no news)
7. Catholic University of Daegu, English instructor (scheduled to interview)
8. Daegu University, English instructor (no news)
9. Bank of Korea, proofer/editor (rejected; no news on possible reversal)
10. Daegu Haany University (interviewed; made favorable impression; no new update)
11. Sungkyunkwan University (no news... typical)
12. Gachon University (requested a 10-minute video "interview" from me, due June 4)
I'm actually surprised that Gachon wrote me with an interview request. My email to them was rather pushy. In Korean, I had written, "Skype interview appointments are easy to make, so there's no reason not to be able to do them." ("스카입" 인터뷰 야속 쉽게 할 수 있으니 못하는 이유는 없습니다.) While that's a statement of fact, there's no denying that I wrote that sentence with the purpose of twisting arms. It seems the hard sell worked, though.
Friday, May 31, 2013
Now that I've gotten an "interview" request from Gachon University, how am I doing?
Gachon University just emailed me to say that they'd like to "interview" with me, but you'll need to read GU's email to see what the uni means by "interview." Here it is.
We’d like to thank you for your interest in teaching at Gachon University.
We’ve reviewed your resume thoroughly and are glad to let you know that you are well suited for the standard we’ve set for the teaching position. We cordially invite you to an interview with our staff, but you are not here in Korean [sic]. So we kindly ask you to send us a video footage of 10 minutes replacing an interview. Here are some questions we’d like you to respond. Please make sure that you include questions 1, 2, 3, and 4 and you may discard other questions if you are running out of time.
1. Brief review of your work experiences: The jobs you’ve held, what your duties and responsibilities were, your likes and dislikes, and what you felt you may have gained from them.
2. Your education: Start with college and then cover any specialized on-the-job training you may have had. We’re interested in the subjects you preferred, extracurricular activities, and anything else of importance.
3. How do you think people become good at a second language? How does instruction help? Do you believe grammar should be taught?
4. Have you ever developed any new ideas for teaching? How would you describe your teaching style?
5. How do you go about planning a lesson? How do you determine whether a lesson has been successful or not?
6. Are you comfortable with using technology in the classroom?
7. What is a cultural problem you’ve had in Korea? How did you deal with this problem?
- Please refer to the following information.
Due : Tuesday, June 4th, 2013
File : the video footage of 10 minutes (size : under 60 MB.)
※ If your file is bigger than 60 MB, could you set up a hyperlink? Or, you can use a DropSend service at [URL redacted] in order to send a big size file. (This is just an example.)
E-mail : [email redacted]
Once again we appreciate your time and effort to apply for the position of our university.
We’re all looking forward to hearing from you.
Tel : [redacted]
Sounds interesting. I might need to rope my brother David in to help me shoot the video. We'll see whether I can get this done by June 4.
Once again, I've been shorn of Thursday classes, so I've got today and tomorrow off. While this is bad news for my wallet, I appreciate having a bit of a break. Our supervisor, K, told me that, as we near the end of the school year (June 18 is the last day of school for Fairfax County, Virginia), YB attendance has been dwindling, but will pick up again during the summer intensive period, which starts in late June and goes through all of July and most of August. I may have a few empty Thursdays ahead of me.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
I finished my Skype interview with the Catholic University of Daegu a few minutes ago. Unfortunately, I gave the interviewers a bad impression of me at the beginning when I popped onto Skype five minutes late, but that couldn't be helped: my Mac is a lot slower than it used to be, so it clicked and whirred frustratingly for several minutes while I waited for Skype to boot itself up. In the end, I connected with the CUD folks, but while they could see me on their end, I was unable to see them (a fact for which they kindly apologized).
The interview may have gone well. I'm inclined to think it was somewhat positive overall, but the tenor of some of the questions left me a bit worried. One pointed question was about whether I would, after accepting an offer, abandon CUD if a different university were subsequently to offer me a post. I had to wonder whether something like that had happened to CUD before. I'm not too worried on CUD's behalf, though: I was told that the uni has a foreign faculty of about fifteen people, and that it's planning to hire ten more (the job ad lists ten open English-teaching positions; I guess the campus has money to burn).
Professor Y (a Korean woman) and an English gentleman named Simeon (not his real name) interviewed me. Simeon nailed me with another question: how familiar was I with CUD? I had to admit that I knew little more than what was on the job ad, and what I had learned from a brief visit to the CUD website. I don't think this was a point in my favor. In my defense, I'd say that gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of the twelve places to which I had applied would be asking a bit much. I did, however, competently answer questions relating to student motivation (this must really be an issue with second- and third-tier Korean universities—the question keeps resurfacing), and to my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. There were some questions relating to my cover letter and résumé, which indicated that Professor Y and Simeon had actually taken the time to read those documents. I was asked to elaborate on what I meant by my preference for "task-oriented, student-centered" approaches to language teaching, so I spoke on that issue for a couple minutes. I was also asked to explain why I had left Sookmyung University, so I talked a bit about my trans-American walk project.
All in all, I got the impression that my interlocutors had their poker faces on, so it was hard to read their reactions to my answers. I know for sure that they weren't pleased by my lack of deep familiarity with CUD, but I don't see that a pat answer based on five or ten minutes' Wikipedia research would have reassured them any more than the response I gave them. I fielded their question as honestly as I could, and they'll have to be satisfied with that.
So while I think the overall interview went positively, I'm not sure I knocked 'em dead. Knocked 'em undead, more like: the interviewers weren't left sprawling on the ground, incapacitated, but they may have been left insensate and shambling. In the meantime, I'll say that it felt strange to be fully dressed, in a button-down shirt and necktie (and yes, I did wear pants during the interview, although I seriously considered interviewing naked from the waist down), at 2AM. There's always something a little bit surreal about live US-Korea communication because of the thirteen-hour time difference.
Professor Y, who seemed very crisp and professional (although I couldn't see her), told me that she'd get back to me "in a few days." I hope she gets back with good news; I was sincere about saying "yes" to CUD if CUD comes to me first with a job offer. I have no idea what my chances are; if CUD is looking to hire ten faculty members, I'm going to guess that my chances aren't that bad... which will make it all the more embarrassing if I'm rejected.
No Sam, no Maximus, and no Iblis today. Only Iblis showed up, but he was assigned to sit with my colleague and trainer, the most excellent JL. I had to restrain myself from jumping for joy when I saw my schedule; I had been bracing for impact. So today turned out to be positively pleasant for a Wednesday. On top of that, I discovered I've got no classes for Thursday.
Now I just need to stay up a few more hours so I can interview with da Catlicks.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Wednesdays are my shitty days, and this hasn't changed despite a six-week absence from YB. This past Wednesday, I didn't have to deal with two of my bad students (goofy Sam and Devil-child Iblis), but Maximus was worse than ever, talking non-stop and basically being a royal, retarded pain in the ass. In some ways, that kid is worse than Iblis, mainly because Maximus has not an ounce of humility and is obviously living in his own little fantasy world where he reigns supreme. The sad reality, though, is that this little fool is probably going to end up repeating the fourth grade because he's too fucking dumb to understand that, by not taking his studies seriously, he's ruining his own future. Well, good fucking luck, I say. I've reached the point where I've stopped caring. Dumb as he is, and as unwilling to shoulder responsibility as he is, Maximus is going to grow up a failure, blaming everyone around him for his lot in life. His pride won't allow him to look in the mirror and see the real cause of his debasement. Hubris isn't a problem that afflicted only ancient Greeks; some modern folks possess whole storehouses of it.
There's no guarantee that this Wednesday—today—will be a Maximus-only day, so I'm steeling myself for the triple whammy of Sam, Maximus, and Iblis. Once I get through my six-hour hell, though, I'll drive home and, at 2AM, will interview via Skype with the Catholic University of Daegu. 2AM in Virginia is 3PM in Daegu; the interview will last around a half-hour, I'm sure, and then it'll be up to the hiring gods as to whether CUD accepts me.
I'm at my brother Sean's house tonight, blogging on my laptop from Sean's kitchen. It feels great to bring only the laptop instead of having to lug my huge Mac desktop around. I'm here only for one night, but that's enough to earn a bit of gas money.
Fingers crossed. May I survive Wednesday with sanity intact, and may I rock the interview.
I was on my way to Wegmans in Gainesville, Virginia, the other day. While sitting in traffic on Route 29, I glanced in my rear-view mirror and did a double-take. An old, weatherbeaten biker sat behind me, looking as if he'd just dropped out of Rolling Thunder's Memorial Day ride. I knew I had to get a picture of him, so I held my phone up to my mirror, and...
My brother David loves going to Snowshoe, West Virginia, one of the ski resorts closest to northern Virginia. Now that he's married, he's fortunate to have a partner in crime to go with him—two partners, in fact, if you count the newest addition to David's family: Penny the dawg. Here are two pictures that David sent to my cell phone from Snowshoe:
I cropped the above photo and magnified its central image, hence the graininess. Below, Penny gets the "Simba" treatment:
I'm glad that David has, in Patricia, a companion who's willing to be as silly as David can be.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
My brother Sean called me up and asked whether I'd be willing to dog-sit for a night or two. Because I'm interviewing with the Catholic University of Daegu on Wednesday night (well, technically, Thursday night) at 2AM, I told Sean I'd be available for just one night: I wanted to be home for my interview.
Tomorrow night's dog-sitting session ought to be interesting, because this will be the first time I'll be bringing along a laptop instead of lugging my heavy desktop over. And because this will be only for a single night, I won't be bringing along any laundry to wash at Sean's place. Upshot: instead of lugging over my usual three or four bags (depending on how much laundry I'm bringing with me), I'll have just one bag. Nice.
New Atheist, neuroscientist, and public intellectual Sam Harris responds to liberal pundit Glenn Greenwald's accusations of "Islamophobia." Harris writes:
Is it really true that the sins for which I hold Islam accountable are “committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially [my] own”? First, I have to say that so much moral confusion lies buried in this statement that it would take a very long essay to respond to all the charges implicit in it. What Greenwald surely means to convey is that the U.S. government is (in some sense that is not merely absurd) the worst terrorist organization on earth. I have argued against this general idea in many places, especially in my first book, The End of Faith, and I won’t repeat that argument here. I will say, however, that nothing about honestly discussing the doctrine of Islam requires that a person not notice all that might be wrong with U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, the vestiges of empire, or anything else that may be contributing to our ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world. Which is to say that even if Noam Chomsky were right about everything, the Islamic doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women and homosexuals, etc. would still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society (and these are problems quite unlike those presented by similar tenets in other faiths, for reasons that I have explained at length elsewhere and touch on only briefly here). And any way in which I might be biased or blinded by “the religion of the state,” or any other form of cultural indoctrination, has absolutely no relevance to the plight of Shiites who have their mosques, weddings, and funerals bombed by Sunni extremists, or to victims of rape who are beaten, imprisoned, or even killed as “adulteresses” throughout the Muslim world. I hope it goes without saying that the Afghan girls who even now are risking their lives by merely learning to read would not be best compensated for their struggles by being handed copies of Chomsky’s books enumerating the sins of the West.
And later on:
Let’s take a trip to the real world. Consider: Anyone who wants to draw a cartoon, write a novel, or stage a Broadway play that denigrates Mormonism is free to do it. In the United States, this freedom is ostensibly guaranteed by the First Amendment—but that is not, in fact, what guarantees it. The freedom to poke fun at Mormonism is guaranteed by the fact that Mormons do not dispatch assassins to silence their critics or summon murderous hordes in response to satire. As I have pointed out before, when The Book of Mormon became the most celebrated musical of the year, the LDS Church protested by placing ads for the faith in Playbill. A wasted effort, perhaps: but this was a genuinely charming sign of good humor, given the alternatives. What are the alternatives? Can any reader of this page imagine the staging of a similar play about Islam in the United States, or anywhere else, in the year 2013? No you cannot—unless you also imagine the creators of this play being hunted for the rest of their lives by religious maniacs. Yes, there are crazy people in every faith—and I often hear from them. But what is true of Mormonism is true of every other faith, with a single exception. At this moment in history, there is only one religion that systematically stifles free expression with credible threats of violence. The truth is, we have already lost our First Amendment rights with respect to Islam—and because they brand any observation of this fact a symptom of Islamophobia, Muslim apologists like Greenwald are largely to blame.
While I'm at least superficially in agreement with Harris, I part ways with him when it comes to the fundamentals. Harris and others seem to think there is something inherently wrong with Islam, but this essentialistic view assumes that Muslim doctrine and scripture cannot be reinterpreted. Consider the Bhagavad Gita, which on a literal reading advocates violence against one's own relatives (the warring Pandavas and Kauravas in the story are in fact cousins) if that is what one's divine cosmic role (dharma) is. But how many modern Hindus seriously advocate this sort of wholesale internecine slaughter? I think it's safe to say that a mature Hinduism looks at those blood-soaked scriptures and finds, amid the gore and death, an enlightened existential meaning. The same goes for a mature Christianity, a mature Judaism, and so on. Islam already has a mature wing: Sufism. Would that more Muslims were Sufi: people who see the world in terms of nondualistic harmony.
In the meantime, I vehemently disagree with anyone who argues that there is something inherently wrong with Islam. Islam is as it is practiced, and the formulation and interpretation of its doctrines is also a form of praxis. This praxis is constantly changing; it's my hope that eventually, in an interconnected world, beliefs will change even faster, modern secularism will become the dominant attitude in the Muslim world, and violence will thereby be reduced in consonance with Steven Pinker's contention that violence everywhere is on the wane.
Gachon University has replied to my application... rather noncommittally. They simply sent me an email to acknowledge receipt of my application (sent on May 17, ten days ago), and promised to inform me, one way or another, as to whether I'll be slated for an interview. So: no real commitment, but at least they did me the professional courtesy of replying. For that, at least, I'm thankful.
Monday, May 27, 2013
"An Atheist Muslim's Perspective on the 'Root Causes' of Islamist Jihadism and the Politics of Islamophobia"
Article here. Recommended by musical comedian Tim Minchin on Twitter. That's one reason why I'm on Twitter: interesting info comes from unexpected angles.
Chicken-and-shrimp curry with peas, ginger, red chili pepper, basil, garlic, and onion.
As low-carb foods go, this has to be one of my all-time best creations. I'd give you some, but I'm worried that you're one of those pussies who can't eat spicy.
The possibilities narrow. I applied to twelve different places; how am I doing?
1. Seoul National University, English instructor (just rejected without interview)
2. Seoul National University, editor/proofer/researcher (fell through: app deadline March 3)
3. Chonnam National University, English instructor (interviewed; rejected)
4. Hanyang University, English instructor (rejected without interview)
5. Hansung University, English instructor (no news)
6. HUFS in Yongin, English professor (no news)
7. Catholic University of Daegu, English instructor (scheduled to interview)
8. Daegu University, English instructor (no news)
9. Bank of Korea, proofer/editor (rejected; no news on possible reversal)
10. Daegu Haany University (interviewed; made favorable impression; no new update)
11. Sungkyunkwan University (no news... typical)
12. Gachon University (no news)
So out of the twelve places to which I've applied, I won't be hired by five. That leaves seven possibilities, only two of which have taken me—or will take me—to the interview stage. As for the other five, from which I've heard no news... at least two or three will likely "pull a Sungkyunkwan" and not bother to contact me at all. Unfortunate, but likely.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
More bad news. Another rejection letter, this time from Seoul National University:
Dear Professor Kevin Kim,
We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in the Full-time Visiting Professor position, and for your time and effort preparing the application materials. The selection committee has completed its review of qualified candidates. We regret to inform you that the committee was not able to recommend you to the administration of the University.
We had a large number of extraordinary applications, and the competition was fiercer than anticipated. While you are obviously qualified, other applicants more closely fit the needs of the Department at this time.
We appreciate the interest that you have shown in the Department, and wish you success in pursuit of your career goals.
Department of English Language Education
Seoul National University
Seoul, 151-748, Korea
A form-letter rejection. But at least, unlike Sungkyunkwan University, SNU actually bothered to send me notification. As disappointed as I am, I still appreciate the professionalism.
How will the makers of "Man of Steel" explain Kryptonians' use of English? Parallel linguistic evolution to match parallel biological and psychological evolution? The odds of such parallelism are so astronomically small as to be impossible, barring a divine miracle. Are Earth and Krypton therefore linked in some divine way? And if Kryptonians speak English, how is it that Superman's "S" isn't really an "S" on Krypton? How does one evolve to speak English while evolving a completely different writing system?
Saturday, May 25, 2013
I think it's fair to say that Nicholas Meyer, Shakespeare scholar and director of the underrated "Time After Time" (which starred Malcolm McDowell and David Warner as fictional versions of HG Wells and Jack the Ripper, respectively), was the Atlas who singlehandedly saved the Star Trek franchise from itself.
In 1979, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (ST:TMP) made its appearance. While beloved of some (personally, I thought the story had promise, in an Arthur C. Clarke sort of way), the movie was considered a monstrous tsunami of crap by most viewers, Trekkie and non-Trekkie alike. Poorly paced, awkwardly acted, and featuring no clear enemy—and thus, no dramatic tension—ST:TMP was a major disappointment that may well have signaled the end of Star Trek. Multiplying the disappointment was the fact that ST:TMP came out only two years after the record-shattering, culture-altering "Star Wars" had made its appearance. "Star Wars" revolutionized science-fiction filmmaking; by all rights, "Trek" should have followed in its footsteps. Instead, Gene Roddenberry, now thought radioactive, was ignominiously removed from direct creative control of the Star Trek franchise.
Fast-forward to 1982, and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (ST2:TWOK). Nicholas Meyer, who had never seen a single episode of "Trek" before, was asked to direct this new feature. He also wrote the script, based on ideas that had been floating around Paramount Studios for a few years. The movie featured the biggest and baddest of the villains from the Trek universe: Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically engineered superman who had been a corpsicle (Larry Niven's term) for three centuries, thawed out by the Enterprise's crew and bent on domination. Khan was a force of nature: super-intelligent, super-strong, and super-motivated. But in the spirit of ancient Greek tragedy, Khan's flaw was his hubris, and in the TV episode in which he appeared, "The Space Seed," he ended up defeated and exiled on a lush planet, there to build whatever empire he saw fit to create. "It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven," said Kirk to Spock, after Khan had asked Kirk whether Kirk was familiar with Milton.
ST2:TWOK brought this amazing villain back. Khan had been left on Ceti Alpha V, but we discover that Ceti Alpha VI, another planet in the solar system, exploded not long after Khan's arrival; the tremendous shock wave altered the orbit of Khan's planet, changing it instantly from a heaven to a hell. Khan's brave vision of the future was reduced to a struggle for survival, a struggle made all the more difficult by the presence of eel-like creatures that could quietly enter a human skull and wreak havoc in the victim's brain, engendering madness and death. Fifteen years of this harsh existence drove Khan insane, and after the death of his wife (Enterprise crewmember Lt. Marla McGivers, who chose to be exiled along with him), Khan's sole reason to live was the thought of vengeance against James T. Kirk.
What a motivation! How could the viewing public not be attracted to such a strong villain? Khan was the genius product of screenwriters at the top of their game. Pitting him against an aging Admiral Kirk was brilliant. The basic conflict in ST2:TWOK was primal, and throughout the history of Trek movies, the ones that have had revenge as a major theme have proven the best (e.g., "First Contact," 2009's "Star Trek"). Movie-making is a collaborative effort, but the success of ST2:TWOK rests almost entirely on the capable shoulders of Nick Meyer. Not only was he a talented screenwriter; he was also a talented director, allowing his actors to plumb depths and extremes they had never had the chance to explore previously. ST2:TWOK had a simple, linear plot and a very basic conflict. Upon these elements were layered other flourishes: flashes of wit and humor, petty squabbles between some of the most beloved characters that harked back to the interpersonal dynamic from the TV show (the debate between Spock and McCoy about the implications of the Genesis Device comes to mind), moments of tension and suspense and, as in the Star Wars films, a planet-destroying weapon.
It seems only just, then, that JJ Abrams would, in 2009, present us with a "Trek" reboot that owed an enormous creative debt to Nick Meyer's work. Like a student learning Chinese calligraphy, basing his work on those of the old masters, Abrams faithfully followed the Meyer template. Abrams's "Star Trek" was so laden with ST2 references that I ultimately had to stop counting them. What's interesting is that "Star Trek Into Darkness" (STID) continues the homage to Meyer with an even more explicit nod to ST2. It's impossible to elaborate further on what I mean without revealing crucial plot elements, so I'll leave the reader to ponder my insight, and I'll move on to a more standard appraisal of STID.
STID includes many of the elements we've come to expect of a JJ Abrams film: people desperately sprinting somewhere, lens flares, fistfights, snappy dialogue (including people trying to talk over one another), deftly handled interpersonal conflicts, a complex but fast-moving plot, and plenty of bonding moments. Friendship makes the world go 'round, and on the Enterprise, people aren't just friends: they're family.
The Enterprise itself retains much the same feel from the 2009 film: as one critic cracked, the bridge looks like a Mac store, all curves and glass and gleaming white surfaces. The engine room still has its old-school, beer-plant ambiance, but this time around, Scotty isn't there much. At the same time, we get to see the Enterprise in some novel situations. At the beginning of the movie, for example, the Enterprise is under water, concealed from the sight of the planet Nibiru's primitive natives as the crew tries to save Nibiru from a world-splitting volcanic eruption without violating the Prime Directive (roughly: no influencing the evolution of primitive cultures by exposing those cultures to advanced technology). We also see the Enterprise airborne, streaking through the sky like a jet fighter; we even get to see it in a demolition derby with a much larger warship while in warp space. We also get to see it, riddled by torpedoes, plunging toward Earth and belching streamers of smoke.
As was true of the older Star Trek movies, STID continues the storyline from its predecessor, teasing out the implications of what has gone before. Mr. Scott's transwarp equation, which the elder Mr. Spock had brought back with him into the past in the previous film, has been appropriated by Starfleet, with disastrous consequences. Jim Kirk continues to be the maverick he was in the 2009 story; Spock is still both friend and foil; Spock and Uhura still have a good thing going, although Spock's willingness to die, early in the film, proves a sticking point between him and Uhura.
And—how can I say this without revealing anything?—STID puts forth an idea from "Battlestar Galactica": in the alternate universe created by the events of the earlier movie, the same actions occur as in the original universe, the same decisions are made... but those actions and decisions are made by different people. The Cylon Leoben Conoy put it this way in the BSG episode "Flesh and Bone":
Each of us plays a role: each time a different role. Maybe the last time I was the interrogator and you were the prisoner. The players change; the story remains the same.
In Cylon metaphysics, time and history are cyclical, eternally recurring, though not precisely in the same way with each iteration. In the Star Trek universe, time isn't cyclical so much as it's ramifying: we've jumped from Branch A to Branch B since the 2009 film. Despite the alternative timeline, though, similar events do still occur, and it's fascinating to ponder what this might mean. Are certain events simply bound to occur, no matter which possible universe we're in? Abrams seems to be arguing that this is the case, given the way that characters—different characters, mind—recite lines almost verbatim from ST2.
I'm still pondering the effect that this narrative technique has on the movie. I suppose it's positive insofar as it reassuringly evokes the 1982 Shatner/Nimoy classic. At the same time, it's negative in that it makes the movie's conclusion somewhat predictable.
Overall, STID is a visual treat and a rollicking adventure. The story takes us into Klingon space and briefly exposes us to Klingon culture (Uhura even has the chance to show off her linguistic skills and speak some Klingon; I had to wonder whether Abrams's Klingons were using the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand), which seems to have much in common with that of Peter Jackson's Uruk-hai; it then takes us to the moons of Jupiter and to near-Earth orbit. The Enterprise's warp engines now produce a Disney-style pixie-dust effect that will either delight you or appall you. The 2009 movie featured orbital skydiving; this movie ups the ante with space-jumping through debris.
The acting is once again spot-on: Chris Pine's Kirk runs the gamut from wounded pride to insane vengefulness; Zachary Quinto's Spock goes through an emotional roller coaster of his own; Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy is as solid and foul-mouthed as ever; Zoe Saldana's Uhura is a perfect blend of sexiness and steely competence; Simon Pegg's loopy Scotty is once again the comic relief. Special mention should be given to Benedict Cumberbatch, Mr. Cheekbones himself, for his performance as ostensible Starfleet agent John Harrison, a mysterious man whose frightening agenda will become only too apparent. I loved what one critic wrote about Cumberbatch's sonorous line delivery in this film: "So sepulchrally resonant that it could have been synthesised from the combined timbres of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart and Alan Rickman holding an elocution contest down a well." Alice Eve, who looks a bit robotic, ably plays a British-accented Dr. Carol Marcus. Peter Weller (yes, Abrams managed to snag Robocop) lends gravitas and suspense in his role as a Starfleet admiral with ulterior motives. Finally, Leonard Nimoy as "Spock Prime" is a welcome sight, even though his role, albeit absolutely important to the plot, is brief.
The movie isn't perfect, though. There are some moments of "Hollywood physics" that could have been cleaned up. One problem is the inconsistent performance of a hand phaser set on stun: at one point, it takes down its target with one shot (even if only temporarily); later on, that same target doesn't go down until he's been shot five or six times. Another inconsistency is with the Enterprise's thrusters: thruster flames are visible later in the film, but invisible at the beginning of the story. (I thought the Enterprise floated on "Star Wars"-style antigrav repulsorlifts.) Perhaps the most disturbing moment of Hollywood physics comes when one character is severely irradiated but suffers no visible radiation burns.
All in all, though, I'd call STID watchable, and I'll likely see it again before it leaves theaters. When I saw it Thursday night, there were only three or four other people in the theater with me. That was too bad: this was obviously meant to be a big-audience movie—the laugh lines, the "wow!" moments, the scares... all these things were wasted on us, the happy few watching the film.
Those of us old enough to remember and cherish the older Star Trek movies will appreciate JJ Abrams's tribute to Nick Meyer. This is the second movie to follow the Meyer template, though; I hope that whoever helms the third movie decides to move on to new territory. Even a winning formula can be beaten to death.
I had reviewed 2009's "Star Trek" back when I was on Facebook. I'm off Facebook now—have been for a few years, thankfully—but because I had emailed my review to Charles (who, in 2009, was as un-beFacebooked as he is now), I was able to dig it out of my email archives. Here, then, is what I'd written about JJ Abrams's "Star Trek" reboot at the time:
The new "Star Trek" was an effective reboot, and now we've got a universe without the planet Vulcan. I almost feel as if the 10,000 remaining Vulcans should form a ragtag, fugitive fleet and go on a quest for their Thirteenth Tribe, with Romulans replacing Cylons.
The movie's pace was brisk, and because it's an "ensemble" story, I suppose that certain sacrifices have to be made in terms of character. All the same, there were two major lacunae for me: (1) the relationship between Kirk and McCoy, and (2) the relationship between Spock and Uhura.
(1) was tantalizing because we got to see how Kirk and McCoy met on the shuttle going up to Spacedock, and we got to see that they were great friends at or near the end of their Starfleet Academy days, but we missed everything about how their friendship took shape over time. I did, however, think it was a nice touch to learn why McCoy's nickname is Bones-- and the reason turns out be unrelated to anything medical.
(2), as portrayed in the film, was frustrating because this was just a damn cool twist on the interpersonal dynamic of the Enterprise bridge crew, and it deserved further exploration. I can only hope that we'll see more Spock-Uhura action in the sequel, and I hope Uhura never succumbs to Kirk's charms. This would, in fact, be a nifty running joke-- an ongoing rivalry between Spock and Kirk for Uhura's affections. (Such a rivalry could, however, become a distraction in terms of story, if half the primary bridge crew were romantically entangled. Would Sulu and Chekov fall for each other? What about Scotty, all alone in the engine room?)
Uhura's character was doubly frustrating, though, because we still didn't get to hear her speaking different languages, something I'd missed way back in "ST6: The Undiscovered Country," where we see Uhura relying on a Klingon dictionary instead of speaking in fluent Klingon. I'd like to hear the new Uhura cussing out a Romulan-- in Romulan.
And in JJ Abrams's revamped "Trek" universe, it would have been nice for non-Federation aliens not to bow to the hegemony of English-- that, or the "Trek" universe should have become more like the "Star Wars" universe, in which every alien speaks his own language but is somehow understood by almost all interlocutors (in Lucas's fictional world, there was barely any need for interpreters... C-3PO acted as interpreter for organic life forms only twice, I think-- when dealing with the Ewoks, and in interpreting for Jabba the Hutt. Otherwise, his main job was rendering non-anglophone droids comprehensible to humans).
The black-hole physics didn't bother me-- first, because I don't really understand black-hole physics well enough to know what I'm seeing on screen, and second, because "red matter" is left unexplained, which makes it a kind of catch-all plot device immune to inconsistency and self-contradiction. So all of that was OK. I was, however, strongly reminded of the planet-collapsing "singularity grenades" that figure in Stephen R. Donaldson's "Gap" series. One of the most impressive visual moments in the new "Trek" film was the destruction of Vulcan.
Mr. Scott's beam-in to the Enterprise was funny, but his propulsion through the water pipe was a little too reminiscent of "The Addams Family."
I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the gritty look of the engine room, which presented an almost scary contrast to the whitewashed sterility of the Enterprise's bridge. That grunginess was reflective of a wider grittiness in Abrams's version of the "Trek" universe, and I definitely appreciated that change. On one level, I'd say that Abrams took his cue from BSG, but the sci-fi grunge look predates the new BSG: "Blade Runner" had the look, as did "Star Wars" before it. In any case, it's nice to see "Trek" get the same treatment. In particular, I was delighted by the weird plastic sheeting inside the shuttlecraft of both the USS Kelvin and the USS Enterprise. I enjoyed trying to figure out what such sheeting was for. Was it some sort of low-tech sterile field, or was it a threshold like that part of the supermarket where you see the heavy plastic separation between the customers' side of the store and the immense storage area in back?
The new look and feel of the viewscreens and phasers were also cool, but I take points off for the shape of the giant Romulan ship, which was obviously designed simply to look evil. Then again, that ship's design made the graceful, high-speed Vulcan spacecraft look all the cooler; the two ships together served as a nonverbal way of contrasting Vulcan and Romulan cultures.
re: actors and acting
Hats off to the entire cast. Despite the corniness sprinkled liberally throughout the script (e.g., neck injection jokes, and good lord-- they even blared out Alexander Courage's original theme during the ending credits!), the actors hit all notes about as perfectly as could be expected-- unlike, say, Marcus Chong, who was memorably awful as the character Tank in "The Matrix" (and who wasn't invited back for the sequels; it's pretty embarrassing to be known as an actor who is worse than Keanu Reeves).
The casting choices were all solid; I had a good laugh at the fact that the new McCoy's hairdo is a carbon copy of the original McCoy's coiffe. I did wonder, though, why Anton Yelchin was chosen to be Chekov. Yelchin is Russian-born, but he came to the US as a baby and is a native English-speaker. His Russian accent is therefore forced, and it continues the Walter Koenig tradition of Chekov's bizarre inability to pronounce the "v" sound, despite this phoneme's prominence in actual Russian ("Zdrastvuytye!" and "Privyet!" are standard greetings with "v"s in them, and the name "Chekov" itself contains a "v"). It would have been a nice touch-- if we insist on having a Chekov who speaks with an accent-- to see the role played by a Russian who is very much a non-native speaker of English.
It was good to see Leonard Nimoy back in the Spock role. Continuity. Maybe this makes up for Nimoy's conspicuous absence from that other "passing of the torch" Trek movie, "ST: Generations."
Kudos to Eric Bana as well, though I think his character should have spoken only in Romulan.
re: references to previous films and the TV series
The new film had quite a few references to earlier films and TV episodes. For one thing, the "red shirt" joke is alive and well. Yes, I caught this when the one guy landed wrong on the drilling platform and got fried by the energy beam.
Spock's quoting of Sherlock Holmes harks back to "Star Trek 6," the movie in which Spock speaks (indirectly) of Holmes as an ancestor.
The Vulcan testing/training facility for children was a reference to "Star Trek 4," in which Spock is briefly seen retraining his mind through a barrage of mathematical, logical, and philosophical questions.
When the old Spock meets the young Kirk on Delta Vega (itself apparently a surrogate for Rura Penthe in "Star Trek 6," at least in terms of look if not function), he says "I have been and always shall be your friend," a reference to ST2 and ST3. I have a feeling that, had our audience been larger, that would have been one of many applause lines in the film. (I still remember, as a kid in 1979, the audience's approving roar when Spock stepped into the new Enterprise with a crisp "Permission to come aboard.")
Kirk's goading of Spock into a violent rage (after Kirk and Scotty beam aboard) was strongly reminiscent of the TV episode, "This Side of Paradise."
Captain Pike's capture and subsequent violation by the alien slug struck me as an ST2 reference-- the Ceti eels that Khan gave Chekov and Terrell. I'm also guessing that the slug's munching on Pike's brain stem was at least partly responsible for Pike's ending up in a wheelchair. He was able to walk when Kirk rescued him (wasn't he?), but the slug would still have been in his head/neck when he and Kirk escaped the Romulan ship.
Green chick. Nerve pinch. Enough said.
The Kobayashi Maru simulation. I think scripter Roberto Orci owes a huge debt to Nicholas Meyer.
As usual, the bridge crew is first to leap into danger. This tendency has never been properly explained in any incarnation of "Trek."
Nimoy's voiceover coda: another ST2 reference.
re: new stuff
Spock can handle himself in hand-to-hand combat! "Fencing" for Sulu means something more than flailing a foil around. Woo-hoo!
Chekov struck me as more of a brainy stowaway than an actual crew member. The fact that he and Sulu were both senior in rank to Kirk (a cadet on academic probation), at least temporarily, was amusing.
In terms of atmospherics, I often had a "Starship Troopers meets Battlestar Galactica" vibe-- the young and vibrant actors, the handheld camera work, the movie's harried pace, the cramped Starfleet vessel interiors (shuttles + USS Kelvin), the almost-casual nature of many of the special effects (previous Trek movies have normally been self-conscious about this: many scenes scream, "This Is a Special Effects Scene!")-- these were all welcome changes. Federation starships finally seemed more Millennium Falcon than star destroyer.
Loved the Romulan guided missiles. Also loved the invisibility (and apparent ineffectiveness) of the Federation ships' shields-- something we also saw in "ST2: The Wrath of Khan." I never really liked the ellipsoidal shields of "The Next Generation." Mixed feelings on the Enterprise's new gun batteries.
Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura all had more to do in the new film than they'd had in many of the previous films and TV episodes. Chekov, in particular, seemed to have more to do. Koenig's Chekov was often just the token Russian who got kicked around a lot; he bordered on red-shirt status, even in movies like "ST4: The Voyage Home."
In the new film, McCoy tells Kirk at one point that he likes Spock. He might have been sarcastic, or this might be a hint that Abrams & Co. are planning a very different Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic.
The bizarre combination of retro and modern was also consistent with the sort of visual tropes we've seen on BSG. It's anachronism bordering on steampunk. Example: Abrams kept the bridge crew in pretty much the same outfits as those from the 60s TV show. The warp drive is engaged with a silver throttle. Cute.
The Vulcan "red matter" ship: very cool, at least aesthetically. Red matter seems to be the anti-Death Star: instead of exploding a planet, we can implode it.
Inevitably, it comes time for all Trek fans to rank the film. We'll note, first, that the new film definitely escaped the odd-numbered Trek curse. My own ranking of the films is this:
1. ST2: The Wrath of Khan (I can't see this ever being dethroned)
2. ST8: First Contact (one of the few truly bloody "Trek" films, plus great interaction between Picard and Lilly [Alfre Woodard], as well as between Data and the Borg Queen; also featured zero-gee combat)
3. ST11: Star Trek (great action, witty script, excellent and relentless pacing, but a wee bit lacking in characterization)
4. ST3: The Search for Spock (very character-driven; awesome Enterprise theft scene; Vulcan metaphysics; Reverend Jim/Doc Brown as the Klingon commander; plodding but uplifting conclusion)
5. ST4: The Voyage Home (humor, and the crew's teamwork is a plus)
6. ST6: The Undiscovered Country (good whodunit, but some questionable special effects and plot twists)
7. ST1: The Motion Picture (plodding pace, but had potential as a fantastic story... this film needs to have all its special effects remastered, needs to be re-edited for pacing, and needs a new, CGI version of Ilia, originally portrayed by the awful-- and late-- Persis Khambatta)
8. ST7: Generations (very milquetoast; the Nexus was a stupid plot device)
9. ST5: The Final Frontier (at least it had humor, but it was still pretty bad)
10. ST9: Insurrection (boring as hell)
11. ST10: Nemesis (fucking awful)
Oh, yeah-- I enjoyed Spock's Vulcan salute to himself. I was also unexpectedly touched by Spock's failed attempt to rescue his mother from death.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Stay tuned! I just saw "Star Trek Into Darkness" Thursday night. A review will be up soon. I can't decide whether to write the review with or without spoilers. Some of what I have to say depends upon knowing certain major story elements; it would be hard to discuss these ideas without revealing the plot. What to do?
I'll offer one spoiler right now—a spoiler about what I'm going to say in my review: JJ Abrams must really be in love with Nicholas Meyer.
More later. Watch this space.
It seems the Catholic University of Daegu is open to Skyping after all. Here's the email I received in response to an inquiry:
Dear Mr. Kim,
OK. I and other foreign professors in Practical English Department will be talking with you at 3:00 on May 30th via Skype.
My Skype ID is [redacted].
You are right. This position is an E-1 visa post.
So I got dat goin' for me. Which is nice.
A few days ago, I had promised to write about my homeward odyssey. Today, good gentles, you shall read that story.
My trip home was, on paper at least, a fairly straightforward affair: go to Incheon Airport, get my boarding pass and check in my backpack, fly to Seattle, go through US Customs, collect and recheck my bag, and fly from Seattle to DC, landing at National Airport at 10PM. Simple, right?
The problems began a few days before May 19, my departure date. I was reviewing my flight schedule, which I had printed out from Asiana Airlines data that my buddy Tom had sent me, and from the Orbitz.com website. I looked once again at my flights' departure and arrival times and mentally walked through how the journey would go: leave Seoul at 6:40PM, arrive in Seattle at 12:40PM, depart Seattle at 2PM...
My mind screeched to a halt as I ran that scenario past my consciousness again. I realized I had given myself only an hour and twenty minutes' layover time, which meant zero margin for error. As May 19 crept closer, I seriously considered going back to Orbitz and buying a ticket for a later flight. Orbitz listed several: they departed Seattle at 5PM, but weren't slated to arrive in DC until the following day. These overnight flights required no hotel time: I would have to transfer planes twice and suffer through four- or five-hour layovers each time. That sounded awful. In the end, I decided to take the risk that I would make my connecting flight at 2PM, thus ensuring a 10PM arrival in DC.
I counted the obstacles I would have to vault during those crucial 80 minutes: (1) deplane, (2) go through passport control, (3) go to the baggage claim and reclaim my bag, (4) pass through US Customs, (5) recheck my bag, (6) pass through a security checkpoint, and (7) cross the entire SeaTac airport from the S-gates to the C-gates by taking three different trams. The situation didn't look good. Could I really do all that in 80 minutes—preferably without running?
May 19 arrived. I tidied up the apartment as best I could, then ended up leaving about 40 minutes later than I had planned. I lugged my backpack and suitcase (which I had acquired from Sperwer's basement) to the airport limousine bus stop located close to the apartment building. The bus arrived after about a fifteen-minute wait. I had exactly fourteen thousand won in my pocket—just enough money for the bus fare. There are several classes of limousine bus, some of which run express routes to and from Incheon Airport, and some of which make several stops and detours along the way. My bus was the latter type; the ride to Incheon would normally have taken about 40 minutes had we gone there directly, but we took over an hour because our route led us past Kimpo Airport. I chafed the entire time, not wanting to be late for my flight out of Seoul. I had planned on giving myself a three-hour head start, but that lead had already whittled itself down to two hours.
We eventually reached Incheon International; I got off the bus, collected my backpack and carry-on luggage, and lumbered into the airport proper. A glance at the electronic marquee showed me which row of ticket counters I needed to go to; when I got to the Asiana counters, I was glad to see that there wasn't much of a line. The ladies working the counter steadily called for the next passenger, and the next. Soon it was my turn.
I stepped up and, astonishingly, the lady immediately began speaking to me in Korean. This doesn't normally happen: because Koreans generally perceive me as white, they'll often try English first, and will switch to Korean only if I insist on speaking it. This particular conversation was held at a brisk pace; I had to focus hard to keep up. The lady asked me a few standard questions, including a question about my final destination. I told her I was heading to Washington, DC, but that because I was on a different airline than Asiana—Alaska Air—for the last leg of the trip, I wasn't sure whether she would be able to check my bags all the way to DC. She asked me for my SEA-DCA e-ticket printout; I handed her the Orbitz document and she reviewed it. She frowned, then told me that Asiana didn't have a partnership with Alaska Airlines, but that she would try to get my bag checked all the way to DC, anyway. A moment later, she said it was done, and I was once again left to marvel at the can-do Korean spirit, so unlike the bureaucratic can't-do-not-my-problem laziness I so often encounter in the West.*
Because she still had my Orbitz documentation, the lady saw my itinerary and told me that it was going to be tight: I'd probably need to run to my make my connection. She reminded me that I'd first have to collect my backpack upon arriving in Seattle, then immediately recheck it for the last leg home. "I'm moving your seat toward the front of the plane so you can deplane faster," she told me. That was beyond considerate of her. "How is it you speak Korean so well?" she asked. I always inwardly cringe whenever I hear that question, because I know foreigners who really do speak Korean well, and I don't deserve to be numbered among them. "Oh, I lived in Korea for eight years," I replied. My standard answer, which explains everything and nothing.
We finished up the check-in procedure; my backpack trundled away on the conveyor belt, bound for the guts of the airplane in which I'd soon be sitting. With nothing but my carry-on, I lumbered over to the departure area, showed my boarding pass and passport to the agents standing guard before the security area, then proceeded through security. Unlike in the States, I wasn't required to remove my belt, which was a relief. Belt-removal strikes me as one of the more humiliating aspects of today's tightened security measures, and I'm still not quite sure what it accomplishes.
I did, however, have to leave my pocket knife in Korea: like an idiot, I had forgotten to pack it in my backpack. I was too rushed, at that moment, to dwell on this sad parting of the ways; the security attendant took my knife with a smile and unceremoniously tossed it into an out-of-sight box that presumably held other such confiscated items. I skipped over to passport control, passed through quickly, and proceeded to Gate 43.
Incheon Airport doesn't stint on comfort. American airport terminals feature rows of seats that have armrests; the purpose of the armrests is actually to prevent rest: airport staff apparently don't want passengers to lie down on those seats, and armrests make recumbency impossible. At Incheon, by contrast, the seats at the departure gate's waiting area seem to have been designed for lying down: no armrests were visible anywhere. I took out my laptop, now a month old and looking decidedly used, what with its dust and fingerprints, and blogged a bit. About 40 minutes before boarding time, a long, long line began to form; I eventually joined it. Despite its length, the line moved along steadily once boarding began. My carry-on bag was flagged for random inspection at a hastily set up table just before the jetway leading to the plane; I patiently endured this further layer of security, then got the hell on board. Step One complete, I thought to myself. At least I'll make it out of the country. I was still worried, though, about my connecting flight.
I found my aisle seat. My fellow passenger was an older Sikh man who stared at me as if contemplating his misfortune at being crammed next to such a large individual. I smiled reassuringly, and did my best to keep my elbows and love handles to myself.
The flight wasn't all that long: less than ten hours, all told. I refused the headphones offered by the flight attendants, preferring just to stare intently at the mounted seat-back monitor in front of my face, which I had set to display our flight information: altitude, airspeed, ground speed, heading, elapsed flight time, estimated arrival time, local time in Seoul, and local time in Seattle. I was mainly interested in the estimated arrival time. The captain had said, at the beginning, that we might arrive as early as 11:40AM. I knew that to be bullshit based on the online research I had done about this flight: as I mentioned earlier, there was a nearly 100% chance we would arrive late. So I set myself to hope for an on-time arrival: 12:40PM. At first, the monitor display showed an estimated arrival time of 12:25PM, which reassured me. Later in the flight, however, that changed to 12:41PM, which left me squirming. My Sikh seatmate, like many older folks, had to get up several times during the flight to go to the restroom. I obligingly unbuckled my belt every time and stood up to give him room to get out. This probably happened seven or eight times over the course of nine-and-a-half hours. It got a little exasperating toward the end.
The interior air conditioning did its job of drying out my nose, leaving me with massive, itchy boogers that I wasn't able to blow out without going to the restroom myself. I imagined the boogers accumulating the way icebergs might gather in the Arctic when the seasonal temperature drops. Thank goodness none of my boogerbergs started calving.
Toward the end of our flight, the display finally settled on 12:39PM as the estimated arrival time. We were, in fact, about five minutes late: our wheels hit the runway at 12:45PM, and we didn't begin deplaning until a few minutes after that. I wasn't sure what time we deplaned because my wristwatch had stopped working at the outset of the flight: I had tried to rewind the watch thirteen hours backward, for Virginia time, but the watch's crown popped off and rolled away from my startled fingertips, bouncing across the cabin carpet and out of sight. Because the winder was stuck between "date" and "time" modes, the second hand no longer chugged forward smoothly, so I no longer had an accurate reading of the time. Well, fuck.
I deplaned quickly and went straight to passport control. The line was already huge... but then I saw that that was the line for foreigners. The line for US citizens and green-card holders was much, much shorter, and I got through passport control with a minimum of fuss in about five minutes. Mentally, I marked the time as about 12:55PM. The baggage-claim area was directly behind and below passport control; I merely had to take an escalator to get down to the carousel. The wait for my bag was about ten minutes; I tapped my foot impatiently as I watched bag after bag appear, roll down the carousel's slope, and get righted, tags up, by a baggage handler. Just as I was muttering to myself that my bag was likely to be the last goddamn piece of luggage to come out of the plane, my backpack appeared. I heaved it off the carousel, slung it heavily across my shoulders, then clumped past the US Customs agents, who took my declaration form and said, "Welcome home."
A few yards past the customs agents was the baggage re-check area; thank goodness it was so close. I gratefully unloaded my backpack, which was thrown—poompf—onto a heavy-duty conveyor belt. I asked the gorilla handling the bags whether I could go to the nearby Alaska Airlines desk to get my boarding pass. "Get it at the gate," rumbled the gorilla. I nodded. Little did I know, meanwhile, that my poor backpack was fated to be misdirected to Atlanta, and that I wouldn't see it again until the following day.
The next step was another security checkpoint. I stood in an ever-lengthening line of people and wondered whether this line would be the thing that prevented me from boarding my connecting flight on time. I had lost track of time at that point, and had only a vague, gnawing intuition that every second counted. One blonde woman in her forties was speaking German to her kids (I assume they were hers), then switching to French when speaking with the forty-something men standing with her. The kids, a boy and a girl who were just as blonde as the woman was, looked grumpy and uncomfortable. I imagined they had just come from their own long flight and had yet another long flight to look forward to. Slowly, impossibly, the line edged tantalizingly forward while I mentally urged everyone to hurry the fuck up. In due time, I was at the security tables and conveyors, removing my shoes, my belt, my laptop, and the items in my pockets, piling them all into plastic boxes and sending them through the scanner. I passed through the security threshold with no unnecessary beeping and was waved forward. But at that moment, the conveyor belt—with my possessions still on it—juddered to a halt and a security employee called out, "Rescan!" Another security attendant began asking us, "Are these yours? Are these yours?" while pointing in a vague manner toward the conveyor. I raised my hand and volunteered that, yes, those items in that box were mine. The agent shrugged, tugged my box off the conveyor, and simply handed it to me. No inspection, no rescan, needed. Apparently, it was someone else's possessions that needed to be run through again.
I grabbed all my stuff and followed the signs for the trams leading to the N-gates (there had been a change: my flight was no longer out of Terminal C, but was out of Terminal N). I ended up having to take three trams: the first was from the S-gates, where I had arrived, to one end of the Main terminal; the second tram crossed the Main Terminal; the final tram went from the Main Terminal to the N-gates. Luckily, the transfer points were nothing like the Seoul subway transfer stations: there was no need to hike ten minutes, up and down several flights of stairs, to reach the next train. Instead, I merely had to stride ten yards across a hallway to reach each successive tram. It was, I think, largely due to this tram system—and to the small size of SeaTac Airport—that I was able to reach my gate, N3, about ten minutes before my flight's departure time.
But there was a final hitch: by the time I arrived at Gate N3, the jetway door had been closed and no flight personnel were visible. Did the plane leave? my mind gibbered. I looked out the window, my eyes following the length of the jetway. No: the plane was still there. An LED marquee at the gate said, "Final preparation." Desperate, I looked over at Gate N4, which also belonged to Alaska Airlines. Four ladies staffed that counter, so I went over and told them I needed to get on the flight departing from N3. One lady cackled, "Making drama, are we?" I assume that was gallows humor. I smiled sourly. "Don't be a diva!" the same lady cackled again. I smiled emptily. I was given over to a lady named Malia or Marina or something; she called over to my flight and told the crew to halt final prep and let me on board. She also printed out my boarding pass, apologizing because my original assigned seat had been given to someone else: I hadn't called in to confirm my flight, so the staff simply assumed my seat was up for grabs. "You've got a center seat now," Malia/Marina said ruefully. I told her it didn't matter, as long as I got on board. She handed me my pass, then walked me over to the closed jetway, opened it with a key, and bade me a safe trip. I walked down the jetway, alone but triumphant, overjoyed to have made my flight. When I got to the plane's door, I apologized for holding everyone up, and was told my carry-on would have to be gate-checked, as there was no more room for in-cabin storage. Too happy to care, I said that would be fine, and took out my laptop when I saw that the flight would offer Wi-Fi service.
My flanking seatmates were two guys, not exactly small themselves. One had his nose buried in a book about economic policy; the other had his nose buried in something that looked like an iPad Mini. Once again, the ceiling blower blasted air down onto my head; it was a relief at first, since I was a bit sweaty, but once we were airborne and had flown for about an hour, I could feel my boogers solidifying again. I patched in to the Wi-Fi, which turned out to be a paid service; I grumbled and reluctantly coughed up $7.50 for a single hour of connectivity, during which time I emailed my buddy Mike about my flight status.
The flight from Seattle-Tacoma Airport to Reagan Washington National Airport was fairly uneventful, but was punctuated several times by fart odor: someone up ahead was regularly releasing gas bombs. The awful nimbus reached my seat and was blasted straight into my nose by the blower over my head. Lovely. At least the flight wasn't boring. Adding to the level of excitement was my dawning awareness that I needed to take a shit. Luckily, this urge never became overpowering during the flight, and when we landed, I headed straight for the first men's room I could find. Once in the stall, I gave vent to my intestinal urges and cleaned out my nose at the same time. As I suspected, the boogers were huge, wet, and a bit bloody. They were hefty, too, weighing down the wad of toilet paper that I'd used as a Kleenex.
Breathing a sigh of relief and glad to be safely back on home soil, I exited into the main part of the terminal and immediately heard my name being paged. The page said to come down to the Alaska Airlines baggage office, which was right at the baggage claim area. I knew that Mike was somewhere out on the airport grounds, waiting in his car. Was he at the cell-phone waiting area? Was he circling around and around? I had no clue, and no cell phone with which to confirm anything. I had to risk letting Mike wait. So I got to the baggage office, and an attendant told me that my backpack was currently enjoying beer and hookers in Atlanta. "No problem," I said. "I brought all my essentials in my carry-on." I was given a number to call in the morning; my backpack would fly into National on the very first morning flight. The attendant helped me find my gate-checked carry-on bag; I used the weak airport Wi-Fi to try to send Mike a message telling him where to meet me, then I went to a pay phone to try to contact Mike directly. I thought I could just use my PNC Bank Visa debit card to pay for a call, but it turned out that the airport's pay phones were run by MasterCard, and thus weren't compatible with Visa, their mortal enemy. I had zero change in my wallet—zero money, in fact, because I had planned to come into the US without needing to exchange any cash. So I tried calling Mike collect. Moments passed while the operator attempted to connect me with Mike... and then she told me that Mike wasn't going to accept the collect call. My mind went white. What sort of dick refuses a collect call? I wondered incredulously, reevaluating my best friend. The lady came back again, however, and said that Mike agreed to meet me at section B; I had only to wait for him. I thanked the lady; I could have been billed for the call, but she was nice enough not to bill me. One of the last things the lady had said was that, if the call had gone through, the charge would have been $24. So that was why Mike didn't accept the charge! I had thought the call would have cost only a dollar or three.
Mike circled around, his passenger window open so he could call out to me. Gratefully, I dumped my carry-on suitcase in his trunk, then got into the passenger seat. The plan was to drive back to Mike's home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where my own car was waiting for me. At that point, I could either stay overnight or leave for Appalachia right away. I chose the latter tack. After an hour, we got to Fredericksburg; I spoke briefly with Mike's wife; we had a round of hugs, and Mike gave me two caffeinated sodas for the long road home. I dumped my bag into my tiny Honda Fit and started back to my apartment.
I was dead tired, but didn't get to sleep until around 9AM the following morning. When I awoke, it was 4:15PM on Monday. I blearily showered and dressed, then drove out to National, got my bag, and drove back to the mountains.
Quite an odyssey.
*To be fair, I've been through the opposite scenario, too: can't-do Korean bureaucracy and can-do American service. Examples of this include the obnoxious Korean Immigration office in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the perky customer service I've received from PNC Bank, Apple (yes: Apple), and Verizon.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Why, all of a sudden, is my blog receiving twice the normal number of visitors? Incredible. Keep it coming, guys! I'd love to get my site stats back to where they were in 2008, i.e., about 350-400 unique visitors per day. While that's still a puny number compared to the thousands-per-day that many bigger blogs enjoy, I'll be happy with my 350.
The Catholic University of Daegu has written me and seven other people to say we've all been short-listed for job interviews. I wonder whether CUD (yep, that's the acronym; chew on it) realizes that I'm back in the States and can interview only via Skype. Many Koreans tend not to read important details carefully. In that spirit, I just sent CUD an email restating my availability through Skype, and reminding the HR office that I had mentioned my travel dates and my willingness to Skype in both my email and my cover letter on May 9.
For all I know, CUD might write me back to rescind its invitation to interview. I hope it won't, but it seems the prejudice against online interviews is rather strong in Korea. We'll just have to see, now, won't we? Let's keep those fingers and tentacles crossed.
I thought I had blogged about the nuisance birds on my balcony before, but apparently I hadn't. Over the past two years, I've had a problem with birds that build nests on my balcony. I kept knocking the nests down (never when they had eggs in them, so don't worry about that), but the damn birds would keep rebuilding the nests. This happened about six times over the course of two years' residence here in Appalachia.* Finally, I kept a couple of the nests I had knocked down and looked them up on the internet. Result: barn swallows. These birds turn out to be persistent little bastards, and they can rebuild a nest within 24 hours. The solution?
Well, in looking up barn swallows, I found out that you can't legally kill them. They may be a nuisance, but they're protected under Virginia law. So are their eggs, which makes knocking down a nest with eggs equally illegal. So I began to research methods for keeping the birds away, and arrived at bird spikes. The term bird spikes sounds horrifying, but the spikes aren't harmful at all: the idea is simply to make the birds' favorite landing area too prickly for them to land on.
Around the time that I was thinking of buying a set of spikes, I spoke with the maintenance guys at my apartment complex about the problem, and the younger of the two guys came up with what seemed like an ingenious solution: barbed wire. He came by one day and mounted a vertical strand of barbed wire very close to where the swallows liked to land. For months and months, I had no bird problems at all... until I came back from my trip to Korea and heard mad chirping at 4AM. I knew the swallows had returned, and the little fuckers had somehow managed to rebuild their nest just inside the barbed wire's ambit. Last night, I knocked that nest down. Luckily, no eggs.
So it seems I'm going to need to buy a bona fide set of bird spikes. I see that Target sells them, so I may just trundle out to my local Target and pick some up.
*I moved to this one-horse town in November of 2010, so it'll have been three years' residence this coming November. But the barn-swallow problem didn't happen immediately; I went almost a year without any intrusions at all.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Yesterday, Tuesday, was my first day of work back at YB. I had been given a fairly light schedule, which was a good way to get me back into the swing of things. I distributed the little gifts I had bought for my coworkers and supervisors, then went through the six-hour day, feeling rather tired and jet-lagged by the end. Today, meanwhile, is my shit day (Iblis, Maximus, et al.), and on top of that, I've got a 2PM e-meeting. Luckily, I can't attend that meeting for too long since I have to leave at 2:30PM in order to make it to work on time.
It was nice to get so many "Welcome back!"s from the faculty and staff. At the end of the evening, we even hung around and talked about my month-long adventure for a few minutes. One supervisor told me that some of the kids had even been counting down the days until my return; I was missed. I drove home feeling good about slipping back into a routine, even if it wasn't my ideal routine. Today, though, is going to be a challenge.
I'm in shock that a massive tornado barreled through an Oklahoma City suburb on Monday, May 20, killing over 50 people, half of whom were just children. The tornado generated winds of up to 200 miles per hour; it tore a jagged swath of debris and destruction wherever it touched down.
What I want to know is: how could so many people die in Oklahoma? There's something very upsetting and confusing about all this, and I want to know what went wrong. Okies are no strangers to tornadoes; surely they have shelters in place, they practice tornado drills, they use early-warning systems... but when two dozen children die, I have to wonder whether, on some basic level, the people weren't ready. Such a death toll can only happen when people are caught by surprise. Were their shelters not protective enough? Did the early-warning system fail to alert citizens in the path of the tornado?
By all rights, there should have been zero deaths. What the hell happened?
While I was in Korea, I elected to forsake my low/no-carb diet. Fuck it, I reasoned. I'm in a foreign country. What happens in Korea stays in Korea.
Turns out I wasn't far wrong: despite thirty days of dietary sinning, I came back and weighed 291.3 pounds—a wee bit more than a 0.3-pound gain (down from 301 pounds). I attribute this to the fact that my body responds more quickly to exercise than it does to dieting, and while I was in Korea, I had to reacclimate myself to all the walking that Seoulites do: up and down long, long subway station steps, across several football fields' worth of horizontal distance in subway transfer stations, and up building staircases when those buildings have no elevators.
So, weight-wise at least, a month of being off-diet did nothing to me, mainly because I compensated by being forced to exercise. I suppose I need to get back on the diet again. Sadness. On the bright side, there's chicken-and-shrimp curry and budae-jjigae to look forward to.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Gord Sellar's risotto looks to have been a hit. I've never tried to make risotto; having heard certain horror stories about how crucial timing is, and how temperamental a poorly timed risotto can be, I haven't had much desire to make my own. So I'm happy just to look at Gord's.
Monday went by hellaciously fast, not least because I went to sleep and woke up so late. I ended up staying awake until around 9AM; my body was in one of those frustratingly interstitial states in which it wanted sleep, but couldn't achieve it.
I woke up around 4:15PM, and had barely enough time to mail off John McCrarey's apartment key (thanks, John) and drive out to National Airport to pick up my backpack. After three hours on the road, I came back to Appalachia and visited a Starbucks so I could use my laptop to update some YB-related files that have been synced with a communal Dropbox folder (my MacBook, for some reason, doesn't want to connect to the Internet at my apartment, even though it performed perfectly in Seoul).
Done with Starbucks, I skipped about 300 yards over to Mikado, another local Japanese restaurant. Unlike Yamafuji, the other Japanese place in town, Mikado doesn't appear to be run by Koreans, so I was hesitant about speaking Korean with the sushi dude behind the counter. His name tag said "John," and his face was one of those "crossover" types that made it impossible to tell whether he was Japanese or Korean (think that's easy? you try). The rolls were good, but also tiny and expensive. The chef did give some of us diners a complimentary roll—something fried and spicy, which tasted like a seafood-stuffed mushroom. Although Mikado's food was quite tasty, the atmosphere was a bit too quiet and serious (pretentious?) for my taste. Yamafuji feels more down-home and relaxed.
Having driven my car 90 minutes from Fredericksburg yesterday, then having driven it to and from National Airport (another 80-90 minutes each way) this afternoon, I needed gas, so I filled up my Fit's tank on the way home from dinner. I've spent the last little while sorting through my huge backpack, putting clothing and knickknacks away one by one. I'll be at YB again later today (Tuesday)—the first time I'll have seen my coworkers in six weeks. Tuesday's not normally a bad day for me; Wednesday is. That's usually my shit day. So I've got that to look forward to as well. Hooray.
It'll be good to get back into a regular routine, though, shittiness or not. While I was in Korea, I often marveled at how unscheduled my time was. Trips out to Yeosu and Ansan and Gyeongsan and Yongin came as a relief, since they provided my days with structure. Now I'm back, having received YB's emails about the need to engage in training for the summer intensive session. I imagine I'll be here for the intensive, though perhaps not for all of it if I do end up employed somewhere.
My apartment still feels a bit unfamiliar to me, after having been away for a month. My buddy Mike and his family used it once or twice while I was gone, sort of as a way station from which to take trips into Shenandoah National Park. Now that I'm back, I find that I'm shocked by how soft my bed is compared to the firm bed I'd been using in Seoul.
I'm also glad to have a stable supply of hot water again. Korean apartments usually have wall-mounted on/off thermostats that control water temperature; when they're off, the water's always cold. When they're on, you can dial the heat up or down to adjust the temperature of the water coming out of the residence's various faucets. This system isn't always reliable: sometimes you'll dial the water to be hot, and it'll be hot for only a few minutes before it suddenly turns cold for no apparent reason. (My apartment at Sookmyung University was an exception: there was no hot-water thermostat; as would happen in an American apartment or house, hot water simply rushed out from the faucet on command. The Sookmyung apartment did, however, have an ondol control—i.e., a thermostat to regulate the heated floor.)
Lastly, I've been reunited with my cell phone, which comes as something of a relief after having used a "dumbphone" for month. I can't tell you the number of times I had wanted to look up a map of Seoul, or to play a simple video game, or to continue reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock novels. Having my cell phone back feels like regaining sight after a period of blindness. Yeah, it's that bad.
So I face my first work day. I know I've promised you a write-up of my departure from Korea. I haven't forgotten that. Sit tight.
Americans, yours truly included, have no damn clue about the different varieties of Scottish accents out there. Can you, fellow American, tell the difference between Highland versus Lowland, or South West versus Central/Tay? Most of the time, the people we think of as famous for Scottish accents aren't Scottish at all: Mike Myers, for example, is a Canuck who has created an entire career from his inconsistent and woefully fake Scottish accent. More recently, Englishman Simon Pegg has said he went for a "Glaswegian" accent in playing Montgomery Scott (or as Pegg calls him, "Monty") in the JJ Abrams Star Trek films (some Scots have called Pegg out, too, for lack of consistency). So our American notion of a true Scottish accent is warped, and when actual Scottish actors make an appearance, our attempts to imitate them sound, well... like Mike Myers and Simon Pegg's.
I think I've identified five major schools of Scottish-accent imitation.
1. The Billy Boyd School. Billy Boyd, a bona fide Scot, is perhaps most famous in America for his role as Peregrin "Pippin" Took, derisively referred to as "the one Scottish hobbit" by Scottish-American late-night show host Craig Ferguson. Peter Jackson made up for the Scotsman deficit when he rolled out "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." That film is stocked to the gills with Scottish dwarves, except for the lone Oyrish dwaahrf: Bofur (Irish actor/comedian James Nesbitt). Boyd's accent has something of a lilting, lyrical feel to it. He tap-dances gingerly over his consonants and flaps his "r"s without rolling them. People attempting to imitate Simon Pegg's Scotty (or Craig Ferguson, for that matter) usually end up aping Billy Boyd.
2. The Billy Connolly School. Connolly, who's getting on in years now, has the classic, stereotypically gritty, gravelly Scots-warrior voice. Anyone trying to tell a grandiose tale of high adventure in a Scottish accent usually ends up sounding a bit like Billy Connolly. Listen to his voiceover narration in the preview trailer for Pixar's "Brave" to understand what I mean: the man steamrollers his phonemes like a drunken Zen monk wreaking havoc in the rock garden. People trying to imitate burly Scottish actor James Cosmo usually end up sounding like Billy Connolly.
3. The Sean Connery School. Only Sean Connery sounds like Sean Connery. He's not the first person I think of when you say "classic Scottish accent." Imitators of Sean Connery aren't trying to sound generically Scottish; they're trying to shound ash much ash posshible like Sean Fucking Connery.
4. The James Doohan School. Doohan, a Canuck like Mike Myers, put his stamp on the original "Star Trek" TV series as the first (and, for some fans, the only) Montgomery Scott. Scottish opinions of Doohan's accent vary from an "Aw, isn't that cute?" condescension to a horrified "Is this what Americans think we sound like?" reaction. Personally, I find Doohan's accent more palatable than Myers's. It's rougher and occasionally guttural without straying into Billy Connolly territory. For that reason, Simon Pegg's Scotty is a bit jarring to me, since Pegg's musical Scottish burr is well within the girlish, high-voiced bounds of the Billy Boyd School.
5. The Infamous Mike Myers School. Mike Myers has somehow parlayed his faux-Scots accent into a multi-film career. He used that gooey, goopy pronunciation in the latter two Austin Powers movies, in which he played Fat Bastard; he used the accent in the Shrek films as Shrek the Scottish ogre; he used it to play the unassimilated Scots father of another Mike Myers character in "So I Married an Axe Murderer." Finally, he affected Scottishness numerous times, to varying effect, as a player on "Saturday Night Live" ("If it's nawt Scottish, it's crap!"). Myers pretty much ruined the Scottish accent for me; his camp is, unfortunately, where most Americans attempting a Scottish accent find themselves. It's the most American-sounding of the Five Schools, and Myers isn't even American.
These Five Schools of Scottish-accent impersonation cover most, if not all, of the gamut of possible vocal interpretations. I'm sure there are elements on the spectrum that I'm missing (write in if you know of any—especially when it comes to the female schools, of which I know nothing), but I feel the above list is pretty comprehensive. Next time you find yourself with an unbearable urge to do a Scottish accent, ask yourself first which type it is you think you're doing.
Monday, May 20, 2013
This is the final picture I took of Korea. I had been wanting to take this picture for a while, partly because of what it says about the country and culture. This picture is from just outside the entrance of my temporary apartment building:
The sign at the fence says, on top, "Sobyeon Geumji." Geumji means "forbidden" or "not allowed." Sobyeon means "urination." (Dae means "big" and so means "small"; byeon means something like "excretion." Daebyeon, i.e., "the big excretion," is what we Yanks would euphemize as "Number Two." Sobyeon, meanwhile, is Number One.)
All together, the words mean something like "Urination Not Allowed." Underneath that first line of the text is: "Hwajangshil Iyong." The verb iyong-hada means "to use"; iyong by itself functions as a noun in this context (although perhaps as something of a hortatory noun). Hwajangshil breaks down into hwajang, i.e., "makeup," and shil, i.e., room. Together, the words form the euphemism "powder room," much like the old term for restroom used in the West. In fact, hwajangshil translates as "bathroom" or "restroom."
(arrow pointing restroomward)
What does one say about a culture that has to remind its members as to where to urinate or not to urinate? I talked a bit, before, about bad pissing habits starting early.
I'm safely back in Appalachia as of a few minutes ago. It was a nine-hour, forty-minute flight from Seoul to Seattle, then a desperate sprint to catch the flight to DC, then a one-hour ride to Fredericksburg to pick up my keys and car, followed by a 1.5-hour drive to my apartment. Obviously, I'm tired as hell, not to mention reverse-jet-lagged, so I'll save the details for a post tomorrow. One snag: my backpack, the only piece of check-in luggage that I gave the airlines, got misrouted to Atlanta. It's coming to National Airport on the first flight out tomorrow morning; I've been told to call a certain number at the airport before I drive back there to pick the bag up. A pain in the ass, but I'm not too stressed: I packed all my important things in the carry-on, so I've got a toothbrush, etc., to help make me look and smell civilized in the morning.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
I planned it well: I have no money at all to exchange. I had some money in my wallet, including a ton of heavy change, so what I did was to pluck out W14,000—the exact amount needed for airport limousine bus fare—and dump the rest in a white envelope for John McCrarey's daughter-in-law as partial compensation for the gas, electricity, and water that I had used.
I left late, however: the damn washing machine chose that particular day and time to go all screwy with its timer. The washer's timer, I discovered, was untrustworthy to begin with, but today, in particular, it kept lingering and lingering while displaying "8 minutes remaining." After 30 minutes of waiting for 8 minutes to pass, I had enough, and turned the machine off in an attempt to pull the laundry out and let it hang-dry. No dice: despite being off (or "off," in this case), the machine's door remained locked, so I couldn't get at the laundry. Seeing that I was already late to catch the airport bus, I started the cycle up again, and simply left.
This is a terrible thing to do, especially with front-loading washers. Such washers are notorious for becoming mildewy all around the rubber ring that borders the door. Also, since the apartment's tenant won't be back for a few days, the damp laundry inside the washer is simply going to sit there, getting funkier and funkier. My apologies go out to John and his family for essentially leaving them an olfactory middle finger. When Daughter-in-Law returns, she'll need to clean the door's rim with an ammonia-based cleaner (like Windex) and wash a load of whites, this time with a good bit of bleach to clean out any other mildew growing in the washer's drum.* After that, she can re-wash the mildewy towels currently in the washer (they're colored, so it'd be bad to wash them with the bleach load).
John—you reading all this? Please pass the info along to the Missus and the D-i-L.
I've got less than an hour before I board. The check-in today was fairly painless, but took a while as the ticket agent tried to figure out how to check my bag all the way to DC (I'm not taking Asiana Airlines all the way to DC, and Alaska airlines, my connecting flight, doesn't have an obvious affiliation with Asiana). She figured it out, but I'll still have to claim the bag in Seattle to go through US Customs. She saw my 2PM departure time from SeaTac and told me that I'd probably have to run. To help me out, she shunted me from a rear seat to a forward seat on the Asiana flight, to give me a crucial extra minute or two when deplaning. Very considerate of her. At this point, I'm anticipating not making it to my flight, which means losing the ticket and having to purchase another. The only slots available, according to Orbitz.com, are overnight flights that arrive on Monday. Luckily, at YB, I'm off on Mondays, so I'll be able to arrive with a comfortable time margin. Let's hope. The next 24 hours are going to be a little crazy.
*She'll have to be careful not to combine the bleach and the ammonia, unless she likes the odor of poisonous chlorine gas.
dishes & utensils put away?
final garbage run?
shower rod & curtain back in place?*
kitchen gas line turned off? sink & drain washed?
electric fan in utility closet (w/orange plastic bag)?
hot water heater OFF?
all lights off?
laundry rack back in living room by sliding door?
blankets & pillowcases given a final washing?
floor given a final once-over?
bathroom (toilet, sink, floor) cleaned?
last laundry done?
note written (+cash)?
*Yeah, that one's kind of embarrassing. The bathtub's shower curtain, which is very long, kept billowing when I showered, and it would sometimes billow so fiercely that the curtain would smack my body and stick to it. This was obnoxious and uncomfortable; my shower curtain at home doesn't behave that way, perhaps because it's made of heavier material.
At one point, the curtain got underfoot and, in stepping downward, I accidentally tugged the entire curtain and rod off with a clang. Happily, this improved my showering experience immediately, even though it meant the bathroom floor would be soaked. (I began using an electric fan to quick-dry the floor, just as I used to do in my old place at Sookmyung University.) Anyway, for this entire month, I've kept the shower curtain and rod off, so now the time has come to put them back in place.
Saturday was busy. It began with some YB-related work (still not done; I'll be finishing that tonight), continued with a visit to Sperwer's place (previously noted), then finished up with a flurry of errands and activities: getting a haircut, shopping for trinkets at Namdaemun, meeting Tom for dinner, shopping a bit more before returning to the apartment, throwing out a massive pile of sorted garbage that had accumulated by the front door (Koreans take sorting seriously)... and writing this blog post.
I got my hair cut at the same salon that did my hair when I first arrived in Korea. I asked the lady to cut the hair shorter this time, partly because the weather has been getting warmer, and partly because she'd cut it too long last time (I normally prefer short haircuts so that I can go six weeks between sessions; getting a haircut a mere month later indicates that my hair was still too long after that initial cut). A bubbly young woman was in the shop talking with the two older ladies; I got dragged into the conversation when it turned out that the girl wanted to get set up with a foreign guy. "I'm 43," I said cautiously. The ladies looked politely shocked: "You don't look it!" they squawked.*
Tom called in the middle of my haircut, and I told him I'd have to call him back. After my cut was finished, I returned Tom's call, and we arranged to meet that evening at Dos Tacos—the same Dos Tacos in Chongno where we had met before. I then took the subway over to Hwaehyeon (a.k.a. Hoehyeon) Station, which is right at Namdaemun Market. Exit 5 from the station took me up to street level, and the first thing to hit me was the overpoweringly delicious smell of some of the world's most awesome street food. Here's a shot of the line of food stalls that were set up right in the middle of the pedestrian zone, all serving fresh food grilled or otherwise cooked to order:
I was tempted to call Tom back, cancel dinner, and just eat my way through Namdaemun Market, gorging myself on stall after stall of food. But I was on a mission: I had to buy some trinkets for family, friends, and coworkers back home. It was cool and rainy; the various food and merchandise stands had deployed their umbrellas and tarps in an effort to keep their wares from being soaked. A constantly moving river of people coursed along the pedestrian zone on either side of the merchants in the middle of the street; I simply went with the flow, stopping now and then at outdoor carts and shops that caught my eye.
I'm a terrible gift-giver and an awful shopper; I have little to no sense as to what's appropriate for whom. In my world, with the friends I have, the best possible go-to gift is books. But books didn't seem like the best or wisest purchase; I was in Korea, so I needed to buy something Korean. At the same time, I knew that many of my coworkers and supervisors are already Korean, so it would be silly to buy things that were (1) already familiar to them, and (2) readily available for purchase at a nearby Virginia Koreatown. That second criterion made it nearly impossible for me to think of what I should buy.
My wanderings took me to the edge of the market, and I had a good look at the newly restored Namdaemun (Great South Gate), which had been torched by an enraged man back in 2008:
The great gate looked rather solemn in the rain, but I was glad to see it live instead of through another blogger's photos (article and pics). I'm also delighted that Korea has its National Treasure No. 1 back.
Starting to feel the cold and the wetness, I took a cab over to the Lotte Hotel. I wanted to sit at a lounge that looked inviting and relaxing, but when I settled into one of the plush chairs, a greeter accosted me and gave me a menu. I flipped through the menu, saw nothing priced under $20, and promptly left, lying that I'd just received a text message from a friend who had changed our meeting place. I apologized and bolted.
I took another cab to Jonggak Station, which sits about a block away from Dos Tacos. I spent a few minutes inside a doughnut shop, sipping an orange soda, feeling desperately hungry, and reviewing the assortment of gifts I had bought. A few minutes later, I stuffed everything back into my bag and braved the rain. Tom called again while I was walking the final yards to Dos Tacos; he had beaten me to the place. For a Saturday night on the weekend of the Buddha's birthday, the restaurant was surprisingly empty. Tom sat in a ground-floor booth, waiting for me. Our conversation quickly turned to end-of-the-trip assessments: "Do you think this trip was worth it? What do you think your chances are of getting work?" Etc., etc. I showed Tom the camera I had purchased at the Yongsan Electronics Market a few weeks back. He promptly took the following picture; I made sure to put on my best ogre face:
I took the camera back and snapped a pic of one of my favorite gringos:
Just before I took the above picture, Tom had been pulling goofy faces and gesticulating. He assumed a serious mien, however, the moment I hit the shutter. I laughed when I saw the above pic, and told Tom he looked awfully white, but at the same time strangely Korean: many Koreans, especially from the older generation, refuse to smile for pictures, preferring to adopt an expression that lies somewhere between lugubrious and funereal.
I was damn hungry, and I told Tom I planned to order an appetizer and a main course. He was right there with me, feeling celebratory because he had just finalized contract negotiations for a new domicile: a much larger apartment into which he plans to move within the next week or so. "It's closer to my university, and there's enough room for Thomson to run around," Tom said. It'll be a while before Thomson does any running: at almost three months old, the little dumpling can't even properly crawl, let alone hold his head upright for sustained periods.
The food at Dos Tacos was, surprisingly, even better than it had been last time. Because Tom refuses to eat vegetables (and is blessed with a freakish metabolism that allows him to survive their absence), our nachos appetizer came with veggies on the side. I piled them all on my plate, including the chunky salsa, and added a couple ounces of hot sauce to the mix. "I feel sorry for your asshole in the morning," Tom observed. I shrugged. I love eating spicy, even though I sweat at the drop of a hat. As I've noted before, the fact that I sweat has zero bearing on my ability to tolerate heat: I can eat up to ghost-chili-level hot and still have a good time.
Speaking of hot: our server was amazing—tall, slim, and bien proportionnée. She took Tom's bizarre aversion to vegetables in stride, and brought out our main courses when we had finished laying waste to the nachos. Once again, I ordered the beef chimichanga with extra avocado and refried beans. I noticed, this time around, that the beef had been done up carne asada-style, which was great.
Tom, who is cursed with the world's tiniest bladder, visited the restroom toward the end of our meal. When he came out, he told me that I needed to go in there to see the photos in the bathroom stalls. Initially skeptical, I went in and took a picture of this hilarious compilation of stall scenes:
Top row: a man in a hoodie, gamely urinating; a man collapsed and wrapped around a toilet bowl, licking the toilet seat; a young couple having frantic sex.
Bottom row: a dude taking a drag from... something; a uniformed man happily receiving a blowjob; and someone who, from the top, looks a lot like British actor/martial artist Jason Statham, taking a dump.
I didn't get to see what image was in the other stall; the smell drove me out of the restroom.
At last, dinner and our pleasant, end-of-trip conversation ended; I paid for the meal and waited for Tom outside while he, unbelievably, went to the bathroom yet again. While outside in the rain, I snapped the following shot of the entrance to Dos Tacos:
I regret not having taken a picture of our server, who really was pretty damn cute.
Tom and I walked toward the Insa-dong/Jongno 3-ga region, said our final farewells, then parted company at the major intersection for Insa-dong. It was well after 9PM, so I knew most of the shops in Insa-dong—the artistic district—would be closed, but I was determined to find more gifts. The shops that were open were all of the tourist-trap variety, but I entered them, anyway, looking for things to buy my brothers, buddies, and coworkers. I eventually found some overpriced items; I can only hope that the recipients will appreciate the gifts.
It was now close to 10PM. The weather remained cold and rainy, and I thought about just jumping into a cab to go home. Instead, I stifled that urge and elected to take a bus.
Sometime in the mid-2000s, Seoul experienced a radical makeover of its municipal bus system. I had already lived in Seoul a few years, so this changeover shattered my world: like other Seoulites, I had to start relearning the system from scratch. This proved awfully difficult, mainly because I knew I had an attitude problem about the change. My friends insisted that the revamped system was far better than the older one—more organized, more clearly marked. But I refused to give the new system a chance, and never bothered to memorize any bus routes. My bus usage went down as I began to rely more heavily on the subway and on taxis. Then I left Korea in 2008, never having learned the new system. This past month, though, I've experienced a change of heart, and have made an effort to grapple with the new bus routes which, in truth, are no longer that new.
It didn't prove to be too hard. While standing at a bus stop on the edge of Insa-dong, I found a chart that showed Bus 171 going right past Gireum Station, which is where my temporary apartment is. I waited patiently under the covered area at the top of a set of stairs leading to an underground passageway. Eventually, Bus 171 showed up; I asked the driver whether he was really going past Gireum Station; he nodded. I boarded, saw the route chart on the interior wall, figured out where I was and where I was going, and made a point of listening to the recorded voice that announced each stop. It wasn't hard to figure out, and I got off right where I wanted to, just past Gireum Station and only a couple hundred yards from the apartment building.
So now I'm home. This blog post has taken a few hours to write, and it's well after 1AM as I wrap things up. My flight out of Seoul isn't until 6:40PM tomorrow evening; I have all morning and some of the afternoon to finalize my trip prep and square away this apartment. I've got a bit of floor-cleaning to do, plus some dish-washing, a bout of laundry, and a thank-you note to write to the apartment's tenant, John McCrarey's daughter-in-law. I've also got to text Grandma tomorrow; I never did get to meet her. Come to think of it, there were quite a few people whom I had hoped to meet for the first time (Lee Farrand, the mad Aussie; Frédéric Ojardias, a friend of Holden Beck, and Robert Koehler, fellow Hoya and founder of the superblog The Marmot's Hole), as well as people I had hoped to meet again, including that culinary gastronaut Joe McPherson; my former supervisor at Sookmyung, Loki; and the inimitable, soon-to-be-published author Holden Beck. I was happy, meanwhile, to have made the acquaintance of longtime Hairy Chasms reader Scott at Daegu Haany University, and can only hope that DHU sees fit to employ me. At this point, I'd say that Daegu Haany is my best shot at employment; there are many universities I haven't heard from, but it may be safe to say that those schools are planning to "pull a Sungkyunkwan" and simply ignore my application because I won't be here to interview, and because they're too narrow-minded to consider interviewing me via Skype.
I told Tom earlier this evening that, over the past thirty days, I had traveled more in Korea than I had during eight years of residence in Seoul. I visited beautiful Yeosu, a quiet but up-and-coming city with a feather in its cap thanks to the 2012 Yeosu Expo; I went down to bright, clean, perky Ansan, a satellite of Seoul, and was impressed by Hanyang University's ERICA campus; I visited Yongin, a city that seemed to be a cool customer compared to Ansan—not as bright, not as peppy, but still quietly bustling and aware of its own venerability. I visited Gyeongsan City, next to Daegu, and enjoyed my time on the Daegu Haany University campus. I also had a taste of the horror that is Hansung University, right here in downtown Seoul, and knew right away that there was no way I could work there. I even had the chance to revisit Yeouido to meet Tom's acquaintance PB; that visit brought back memories from the mid-1990s, when I used to work in Yeouido for the SsangYong Paper Company.
All in all, this was a productive trip, I think. It wasn't ideally timed; if I try this same thing next year, I'll plan to come about two or three weeks later. I had been correct in my original assumption that university job ads start appearing around mid-April, but the real torrent of ads doesn't start until May, and it isn't until late May, or even early June, that unis start interviewing their short-listed candidates. Still, I fired off twelve applications and already have some results: rejections from Chonnam University in Yeosu and Hanyang University in Ansan, as well as a fumble-footed rejection from the Bank of Korea (which was too slow on the uptake; they shot themselves in the foot). I interviewed at Daegu Haany in Gyeongsan City and had a positive vibe. That leaves eight universities that haven't responded to my applications. Will they? Will they even bother? I don't know.
I suppose the most crushing result of all this effort would be to be rejected by everyone. But if that happens, well... I've learned some lessons from this trip, and there's always next year. Unless something awesome appears sooner on the horizon.
Forward Unto Dawn!
*Fat keeps you young-looking. Look at the Food Network's Alton Brown, who slimmed down so far that he now looks twenty years older (check out his neck wattles). Fat puffs you out and erases your wrinkles. Sure, you'll die of a heart attack, but at least you'll look amazingly young.