Wednesday, August 29, 2018

where to live?

While I was in the States, my friend John McCrarey, who's in the Philippines after a move from Korea, posed the following question in my comments section:

Does being back [in the US] make you miss living there?

I'm sure you can anticipate the superficial answer, which is, of course, yes and no. But what's the point of being congenitally verbose if you're not planning to give a lengthier response?

I suppose I should start by offering a glimpse of my headspace before I went on this two-week trip back to the States. The last time I'd been in the US was 2015, when my brother Sean got married during a wedding ceremony at which your humble narrator officiated, per Sean's request. It had been a few years since the wedding, and I'd been working at my current job, the Golden Goose, since before Sean got married up to now. My first contract with the Golden Goose had been for one year, from 2015 to 2016. The next contract, which I'm finishing up this week, was for two years, from 9/1/16 to 8/31/18—my 49th birthday (this coming Friday, in fact). This year, I had two weeks' vacation remaining to me on my current contract, and since I had opted not to travel internationally last year, because of my trans-Korea walk, I decided that 2018 would be a Year of Voyage, first to the States, and next to Europe, especially France, where I have people whom I consider family.

So I got my travel-permission form signed and prepped for my US trip... and it was a good trip. Really good. I had the chance to see my buddy Mike and his family, and that was a happy moment for me despite the fact that Mike had lost his mom only the month before. I had the chance to see my brother David as well, even though David was busy at work in DC and busy at home with all the dog-sitting he had to do thanks to my brother Sean and his husband Jeff, who had left their dogs at David's place for David to dog-sit. (David told me that, if I stayed at his place, I'd have to take over dog duties, so I elected to stay at a nearby hotel to preserve my freedom. As I told David, I hadn't come all the way across the ocean to be an unpaid dog-sitter who would have to take the incontinent chihuahua out every 70 minutes.) I had the chance to eat good food and drive out to Front Royal and Skyline Drive to do a bit of sightseeing and hiking, and that was all good. I didn't see any movies or consume any media not available on my phone—unless you count the few times I watched TV while at David's place. But all in all, I had the chance to visit the hometown and see some loved ones, and that was about what I had planned to do. My trip worked out well for me.

Let's talk, then, about some aspects of American life that I don't miss, and the best place to begin, I think, is with the aforementioned American TV, which proved to be just as shitty as it's always been. Most of what I saw at David's place was unmemorable garbage, but let me try to remember some show titles. There was, first and foremost, "American Ninja Warrior," a loud, in-your-face reality show devoted to athletes trying to make it across an obstacle course that, according to David, unfairly favors people with a rock-climbing background because so many of the obstacles are about grip strength. Also on tap was "Dual Survival," another reality show that actually started up several years ago, but which no longer features the same two guys I'd seen in the show's early years. In this show, the idea is that two guys with markedly different approaches to survival have to help each other through some tough outdoor scenarios. In that same vein is the sometimes-hilarious "Naked and Afraid," whose lone titillating gimmick wears off fast like a joke repeated way too often. In this show, two people with outdoor skills varying from beginner to expert are thrust into a survival scenario (in the Philippines, Thailand, somewhere in South America, etc.) in which they have nothing but a single tool of their choosing, a modest bag on a sling, and nothing else: they are literally naked when they meet each other. Since many participants are married and have families, the potential for sexual tension is pretty much zero, and even when it's a pair of singletons, there generally aren't any sparks. Both contestants get used to seeing each other naked within the first few hours, so the show's lone gimmick is rather hollow. The only time nakedness can be a factor is when it's cold and rainy at night, and no one has figured out how to make fire and/or weave together any clothing. There may have been other shows that I glimpsed, like "Alaskan Bush People," but reality shows have, at this point, all acquired a certain sameness that makes them only mildly interesting. Otherwise, there was the mainstream news, and readers of this blog know, especially since 2016, what my attitude toward that is.* So, yeah: American TV still sucks, and for the most part, I don't miss it at all. As I wrote earlier, my method for watching TV these days involves listening to online chatter, determining which TV series are considered awesome, purchasing those shows in their entirety if they've run their course, then binge-watching the hell out of them.

Coming back to the States was also an unpleasant reminder about how collectively unhealthy we are as a people. We Americans—especially when seen from behind—are lumbering, shambling, ponderous, beefy, neckless, vaguely gesticulating folk who seem singularly unable to move anywhere as if we have a purpose. We're all fatback and enormous, squishy buttocks. It's often hard to tell men from women when seen from behind.** Everything is fat rolls and cankles. We could all (and I'm talking to myself as much as to anyone else) do with about three sessions in a row of US Army boot camp to restore some flintiness to our gaze and some life and tone to our limbs. Wow, we are pachyderms. A few years back, South Korea's life expectancy leapfrogged ours, but we're not far behind (80 years for the US, 82.5 years for South Korea), and that's only because of the quality of our medical technology. Koreans are, compared to Americans, naturally healthier, and for longer. Koreans may put their faith in a lot of bullshit Chinese medicinal hocus-pocus, but they also tend to eat better and lead far more active lives. It probably doesn't hurt that Koreans—driven by their bizarre, mysterious urges—move as if being chased by demons; I've jokingly remarked on this tendency before, when talking about how Korean women always seem to kick my ass when walking on level bike paths (the ladies generally lose steam when there's a hill; that's because they focus relentlessly on cardio to the exclusion of strength), but it's true of the men, too: this is bballi-bballi ("hurry, hurry!") culture. As a people, Koreans do move with a purpose, even if it's not always obvious what that purpose might be. So along with TV, I can't say I miss the fat-and-lazy aspect of American culture. Even American kids are mostly elephants-in-training. Are you sensing a degree of self-loathing in this paragraph? Yep—you got that right. No one likes looking outside himself and seeing reminders of his less desirable characteristics.

Thanks to my experience at the DMV, I can also say I didn't miss American bureaucracy. It was an interminably long wait to see a clerk, and at the end of the process, I still wasn't given my license: I was given a slip of paper that acted as a temporary license, and my actual card was mailed to me with the promise of delivery in 7-10 business days. Granted, the license actually arrived in closer to four business days, which was a pleasant surprise, but I couldn't help thinking that, in Korea, any card would be printed and issued right there on the spot.

Let's move to the positives. One thing that pleased me was the driving culture: rule of law does, in fact, exist in the States, and it's not a chaotic, wild-West scenario in which people who don't trust each other are always selfishly vying for some temporary advantage, cutting each other off, ignoring traffic lights, risking their own and others' lives because selfishness is the rule in the public arena. Consideration is still a thing in the States, although I imagine some cynics would say it's either fading fast or nonexistent, depending on which part of the States we're talking about. I was reminded of the general lack of consideration in Korea just this evening: as I was tromping up my building's staircase on my nightly climb up to the 14th floor, I encountered a teenaged couple sitting together on the steps, blocking my path. The male half of the couple made only the slightest of moves to offer me room to pass; I wanted to kick the dipshit in the head. I also wanted to growl something about being considerate, but I knew any speech would end up falling on deaf ears or being mocked once I was out of earshot. In public, Koreans often give each other little to no consideration; consideration is reserved for family, friends, coworkers, and others who are part of one's concentric circles of familiarity, loyalty, and obligation. Everyone outside of those circles simply fails to register; far from being fellow citizens, they're merely background noise.

In the same vein, it was pleasant to see and hear people in the States apologize for stepping in my way. This happened several times while I was shopping at either Target or Walmart: I would round a corner at the same moment as someone else, and that person would instantly apologize. I, alas, have gotten so used to not saying anything in such situations that I often failed to offer my own apology, which probably made me look like an asshole to the apologizer. Koreans, for their part, lack any real notion of civic duty, recognizing each other as fellow citizens only in moments when, for example, nationalism is being evoked at a public event.*** Otherwise, as I said above, strangers are merely background noise, and a crowd of strangers is just something you have to move through, the way an airplane moves through turbulence. At the Yangjae Costco just the other night, I was in line for the cashier when the woman behind me began gently bumping her shopping cart into my ass. After the third time she did that, I slapped her cart loudly four times and shot her a dirty look. Problem solved, but at the expense of my serenity. I don't like having to take on the role of Behavior Police, but sometimes, the idiots around me leave me no choice. It takes me a few minutes to cool down when such things happen, and they happen with depressing frequency. Why? Because a stranger is nothing to a Korean, who has no theory of mind when it comes to strangers.

My experience shopping at Wegmans also gave me a pang: it was nice to be able to find all the ingredients I needed for my Middle Eastern chicken in one single store. Here in Korea, cooking Western meals often requires darting to three or four different and far-off places to piece together a repast. In some situations, the expat in Seoul is forced to make his or her own food, as I just did for this Friday's spaghetti: I made my own Italian sausage again because the local Costco doesn't carry such sausage, and High Street Market, which had been my go-to place for Western meats, decided to give up the ghost a few months ago. I had gone to John Cook Deli Meats to find Italian sausage, but that sausage proved wildly unsatisfactory (which is a rant for another time).

I also had access, in the States, to the bad-for-you foods that have made my people into the elephants they are today—which, I guess, amounts to a mixed blessing. In particular, I was happy to be able to grab a Cherry Coke whenever I wanted one, and while I had Jamaican beef pockets only once during my trip, I was comforted to know that they were always there, ready to be eaten at a moment's notice. While things in Seoul are highly convenient because of how a typical Seoul neighborhood is laid out, there's a certain convenience to being in America and knowing that the things you want or need are a short car ride away. Along with Cherry Coke, I made the acquaintance of the Brisk brand of fruit punch, which I ended up liking a lot more than Hawaiian Punch. While driving along Skyline Drive, I went to a general store and bought a teriyaki-flavored Slim Jim, which was a first for me. Quite addictive. Now that I'm back in Korea, I definitely miss Slim Jims, even though I know those lovely sticks of processed meat are almost as unhealthy as the cigarillos they resemble.

Despite my having chastised Americans, above, for not moving around with much energy or focus, I did appreciate the relatively relaxed tenor of life in northern Virginia compared to the frenetic pace of life in Seoul. I can't rightly make this a US-versus-Korea comparison because I know for a fact that the pace of life outside of Seoul is actually much more relaxed, and similarly, that there are places in the States that are tightly wound, where life is lived with a sense of desperate urgency. Also, I say "relatively" relaxed because, let's face it, northern Virginia has one of the worst traffic problems in the nation. If I recall correctly, NoVA is third behind New York and Los Angeles when it comes to traffic jams and snarls and driverly surliness. How relaxed can the region be when so many people are stuck in traffic and pissed off? Still, my experience of NoVA, this time around, was generally pleasant, despite the rude awakening that was southbound Route 95 to Fredericksburg.

I could go on and on comparing this or that aspect of the US and South Korea, but it should be obvious by now that each place has its good points and its bad points. I've lived in Korea for a total of thirteen nonconsecutive years; while Koreans, with their nationalism and racism, will never accept me as one of them, Korea has nonetheless become, in some awkward sense, my home. I don't love the place unquestioningly, but I do love this country, flaws and all. I was actually glad to come back here at the end of my trip, probably because life in Korea has become so familiar to me. At the same time, I know I'm American through and through; Virginia will always instantly feel like home, no matter how long I've been away from it. For me, the somewhat morbid question has always been: where will I die? Will I die in Korea, or will I die in the States? I'm no fan of Korean health care, and even though things are more expensive in the US, I'd prefer to be there when I'm old and frail. This isn't to say I think the US system is perfect: I saw its flaws up close during my mother's cancer. But given the nightmare stories I've heard about Korean health care, and the experiences I've personally had within the Korean context (I think I wrote about the filthy hospital I visited near Daegu, back when I was teaching at Daegu Catholic), I'm leery at best.

Ultimately, I see myself growing old in a house in the mountains somewhere, not far from a river or lake to and from which I can hike. In this vision, I'm surrounded by natural quiet; I've got a couple loyal, lovable dogs and maybe even a cat. When I imagine myself as older and dependent, I still see myself in that mountain home, but maybe with a few emergency devices whose buttons I can press—I hope—if I need swift medical attention. Most of the time, when I imagine this future, which may or may not include a wife and family, I imagine it's set in the States. While I don't believe in destiny, I think it's very likely that I'll move back to the States someday and, eventually, die there. But the longer I stay in Korea, the more plausible it is that this land, which will never accept me, will be my final resting place.

*A coworker of mine, when we were out to lunch today, rather rudely noted that I sometimes didn't seem aware of certain goings-on being reported by the mainstream media. I held my tongue, not wanting to trouble him with my cynicism about an institution that seems to have devoted itself to churning out bias and lies. I know for a fact, because I've asked, that this coworker is equally unaware of the goings-on reported on by the alt-media. He might think me just as deluded and misled as I think him to be, but in the end, I prefer to rely on news and commentary that have actual predictive value—a mark that such information is anchored in reality. In the meantime, I stay away from the wild-eyed, shriller side of the alt-media: Alex Jones, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Mark Dice, Mike Cernovich, et al.

**Granted, it's sometimes hard to tell men from women in Korea, too, but for very different reasons: some Korean guys are extremely glam-rock effeminate, and the culture actually cultivates the idea of the ggot-minam, i.e., the man who is beautiful like a flower. This is well beyond Western notions of metrosexuality (think: Ewan McGregor wearing mascara at a party), and it dominates Korean TV—which is also shitty, by the way.

***This may be a good time to note that Koreans who meet as strangers while abroad will experience all the fellow-feeling they fail to show each other inside Korea's borders. As strangers abroad, they suddenly become part of the We're In This Foreign Experience Together fraternity (to be fair, this fraternity is by no means unique to Koreans); strangers will actually seem to be real human beings and not mere ciphers to be ignored, deliberately bumped into, or brusquely pushed past.


John John McCrarey said...

Interesting observations, glad I asked!

I'm going back for a couple of weeks in October, but other than seeing the kids and grands there's not much I'm looking forward to. Well, as you mentioned the shopping. I'm bringing an empty suitcase to fill with hard to find items here.

Back when I was doing the 6 month rotation between the USA and Korea I found my American life seemed shallow and vanilla. I've let go of American cultural norms and all the talk about "the big game" and the like held no interest. And chain restaurants and bars didn't have the same sense of personality I was used to. Well, except 5 Guys. I love that place!

I might go back to the states to die, but I just can't imagine living there again.

Kevin Kim said...

Five Guys! That place rocks, and I saw that several more branches had opened up in northern Virginia, but I failed to go there this time around. Instead, I went to Johnny Mac's, another favorite.

Charles said...

Having spent the entirety of last year in the States, I would say that you might need to do something similar to [i]really[/i] get a handle on how you feel about things. A two-week visit still falls into the realm of "a trip" rather than "living somewhere."

That being said, after my experience, my answer to the question would still be of the "yes and no" variety, so it may just be a matter of degree. As for me, my experience last year was great, but it also kind of solidified the feeling that I have no real desire to ever move back to the States. Which isn't saying that I absolutely won't, of course... I just don't feel the need to.

As for whether I will spend the rest of my days in Korea... well, we can talk about that over barbecue at some point in the (hopefully) near future.

Kevin Kim said...


I see your point, sort of, but I'd contend that it's not as though I'm starting from zero in assessing life in America. A two-week trip provides a mere update to a vast fund of knowledge and experience that I had accumulated over years of living in the States, and that fund provides me with a good basis for comparison. After all, I lived continuously in the States from birth until college, which is when I moved to France and then to Switzerland, and the US hasn't become unrecognizable since then.

So while I think I see what you're saying re: spending a year in the States versus spending only two weeks there, I think a two-week dip is enough of a plunge back into my home culture to give me a finger-on-the-pulse reading of the motherland (a term I use with a smirk, given that Mom was an immigrant, and America was not her motherland!).

As for your insights re: yes and no, you're probably right that it's a matter of degree. If I moved back to the States, there'd be things I would miss intensely about being in Korea, just as, right now, there are things I miss intensely about being in the States.

[I also see you've discovered that Blogger's comments use the regular angle brackets for HTML tags, not the square brackets. Another caveat: the comments section accepts only a very narrow range of HTML tags. I'm not even sure the "strikethru" tag works.]

Charles said...

Argh. I know that Blogger uses the angle brackets--I just used the square brackets out of habit, because that is what many forums use. Usually I will catch myself, but sometimes I will not.

As for my comment, yeah, I'm not saying that you're starting from zero. But, I don't know, it is (<-- Ha! Take that, Blogger!) different, at least for me. Prior to last year, I had spent over two decades in Korea. I had visited the US numerous times during that period, but last year was the first time I had lived there since graduating university--there were many, many things that I would not have had to deal with had it been just another trip, and also many things that I was able to enjoy that I otherwise would not have enjoyed. And I wouldn't say that the US has become unrecognizable since I graduated from university, but it definitely has changed.

Anyway, I guess everyone has their own experiences, and your experience is certainly not going to be the same as mine.