Monday, November 29, 2010

Debbie Downer

As many to all of you readers (Mom and Dad) are undoubtedly aware, North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island called Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea last week. That same afternoon, a friend of mine – three weeks new to Seoul; she teaches five-year-olds at some hagwon in Apgujeong - was informed that North Korea was bombing South Korea. Exciting! No one explained the details to her or to her kids, who started freaking out. Whoever was in charge at her school just let that information simmer for about an hour before clarification was administered.

That's what we're dealing over here, folks.

During each of the three time periods that I have spent in Korea, there has been action on North Korea's part that has understandably ruffled feathers in Seoul. In the spring of 2009 it was missile launching. I remember listening to various conversations between Stefan and Jay and Scott in the computer room at Poly School; most of it was simply scoffing, since the missiles fell pathetically into the ocean. North Korea had said they'd attack anyone who shot their missiles down, but no one had to. Last year a South Korean submarine, the Cheonan, was sunk out in the Yellow Sea, and forty-six people went down permanently. Was N.K. responsible for this? Signs points to yes. A lot of people were angry about that, including some of my students. Who wouldn't be? And then there was, of course, the bombing this month. The aftermath (watch the video; the article itself isn't important...yet) is still unfolding.

So. I am definitely not indifferent about what is going to happen. Though potentially deadly, there is something exciting about all this. North Korea's actions seem absurd to my politically-uninformed mind. More aggression decreases chances of reunification, a merge that would only help North Korea. I would also assume that if any large-scale war does start, North Korea might do a lot of damage but they will cease to exist as a nation due to the pummeling that various powerhouse nations would/could/should impose on them. What they need up there is a good old-fashioned revolution, where someone shoots Kim Jong-il and/or his son in a crowded theater or while they are riding in a parade, or something exciting like that.

Until that happens, though, I am basically just interested to see what happens. Hopefully nothing does. My head teacher pointed out that if something does go down – like, atomic projectiles striking Seoul – our school and the surrounding community will be vaporized, because we are situated within a stone's throw of a major U.S. Army base, the likely target of any North Korean explosives headed in this direction. Somehow this is comforting to me; we won't have to suffer through any injuries or pain. Not very exciting, for me, but at least it would be over quick.

How can I end this on a high note? Lee Myung-Bak, the president of South Korea, said that further attacks from the northland will solicit a "firm response." People continue to starve and die in North Korea. The South Korean defense minister has resigned. Our administration e-mailed all the teachers at my school an emergency evacuation plan from the U.S. Embassy. Taiwan is angry at Korea for a disqualification in the Asia Games. The list goes on and on.

But! This is 2010! I live in a very civilized, powerful, rational (except for certain fashion trends) nation right now, and I came from one that is just as much so. And both they and certain others are working to resolve this situation. We're all adults here, even Kim Jong-il and the heir apparent. Without a doubt, some solution can be conjured up by the powers that be. So with that in mind – and/or also the thought of how lovely heaven will be – I will still sleep contently and peacefully tonight, basking in the glow of my new Christmas lights and dreaming of reading nothing exciting on in the morning...nothing exciting at all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bag 'Em and Tag 'Em, Pt. 7

The following account details experiences that, though due in no part at all to my own efforts, I believe to be possible only in the country I am currently in.

(1) Suwon Fortress

In Asia, there is a woman. She is neat. Her name is Dawna. She lives in a city of just over a million. That city is called Suwon. The woman, Dawna, has a big heart. And many friends. There was a time when she wanted all the friends to come visit her, to come visit Suwon. But, alas, they would not. However, in addition to having a big heart, and many friends, Dawna had resilience. After one attempt at hospitality was denied, she made another. Suwon 2.0. And this one, this second invitation for the friends to come hang out, it worked. It worked to a T.

On the weekend of November 6 and 7, several inhabitants of Seoul invaded Suwon and hung out with Dawna. The inhabitants included Ashley, Sharpie, Holly, and myself. For those of you keeping score at home, yes, I was the only guy. The congregation began Friday night, when we made a smorgasbord of culinary delight and then reduced a noraebang to rubble and ashes. It continued on to Saturday, when we left the confines of Dawna's abode and traveled, head over heels, to the Suwon Fortress.

Originally, there were those in Korea who thought that the capital of the land should be moved south from Seoul to Suwon, where it was safer. With this move in mind, 700,000 man-hours were spent constructing a fort around the city as it lay there in the sun. Eventually, whatever threat incited this decision passed, and the city of Suwon expanded to a larger area than could be kept within the walls. The structure stands, but now, instead of having a city within it, it is surrounded by the city which it once sought to house.

And we walked around it. For hours and hours. We took a lot of pictures. Dawna let me have complete control of her camera (as Mark did in China...perhaps a terrifying trend is starting here).

Undoubtedly the battlements look lovely the whole year round, but I was delighted to view the structure in the dreary fall weather. The grass everywhere was the color of the folder icons in Windows XP. The leaves were every color a Western person misses from fall in his or her hometown. And the gray, overcast sky kept the mood from being light in the least. Why would the mood in a fortress be light? War happens here.

We also spotted a Minnesota Twins hat for sale, which was unprecedented in my experience in this country. The day was a success.

(2) Seoul Forest

Concrete. Glass. Brick. Mortar. Stone. The crushed bones of slaves. All these things and more make up many modern cities across the globe. Jobs and money are there; consequently, the population in each metropolitan area rises and rises. The air becomes thick with human pollution. The streets become congested with traffic. The populace has less and less room to live, move, or breathe.

Every so often, though, a triumph against all this industrialization occurs. One such victory is Seoul Forest. Located in the eastern half of the city, this arboreal haven is riddled with not only trees but also pounds, grass, brush, animal life*, swamps, paths, and a slough of other natural elements, items that one wouldn't expect to find in the middle of one of the biggest metropolises in the world.

Man could not completely leave his creative capacities out of this project; thus, included in all the green were these horses, racing toward the park-enterer; these books, reminding attendees that the concept of reading is basically ubiquitous; and this giant playground man, who has children scampering about within him.

I went there two times this fall, each time hoping that the trees would be just the color I wanted them to be. Neither time was as successful as I was hoping it would be in that regard, but both visits had rewards of their own. It is a neat place with lots to see. Both times I wandered around aimlessly, trying not to look too much like a tourist (although this has not stopped me before) and attempting to meander through all the different areas. Both times there were oodles of Koreans everywhere, whether old or young. And both times I was glad I went.

(3) Lantern Festival

On a crisp fall day, November 13, a large, grisly horde of foreigners joined the throng at the Cheonggyecheon to witness the 2010 Lantern Festival: Autumn Edition. Some of us in the group were aware of a Lantern Festival that was held annually in the spring, a celebration that we figured we'd never get to attend because it was over Buddha's birthday, which meant our schools had a day off from classes, which meant we were probably going to try to leave the country. So the fall rendition of this festival was a Godsend.

There is not much to tell about this evening other than who went. Bethel graduates Pete “Sleep with One Eye Open” and Kelly “Who's That Drivin'? Patrick Swayze!” Freeburg, Holly “Call Me Aaron Burr from the Way I'm Droppin' Hamiltons,” Dawna “Lee Dungarees: Can't Bust 'Em” Diamon led the pack; also included was Mr. Mark “Sarangbi” Nola, Elizabeth “Comes in 17 Different Colors” Sharpie, and two new ladies I had not met before but had preemptively judged based on the little I know about them: Laura, who was a Cubs fan (thumbs up) and Kara, a Northwestern attendee (thumbs down). And there was me (sixteen thumbs down).

We arrived at the extravaganza and expressed a variety of emotional responses to the humongous crowd; some laughed, some worried, some sighed with frustration. Wisely disregarding these reactions, Lauren, a seasoned-Lantern Festival attendee, advised us to avoid the Simon-sized line that was at the head of the Cheonggyecheon stream where the event was being held and head eastward to enter the festival through the backdoor. So we did that. And we got in relatively quickly.

All manner of lanterns were situated over the water. I took pictures with Old Faithful, my two hundred-year-old camera, and I am happy with those, but careful readers have already noticed that a true photographer, an individual who knows what he is doing with a camera and also has an acute eye for incredible pictures and also has the coolest hair in all of East Asia, was present in our group. The pictures that Pete has posted trump what I took by leaps and bounds; if you want to see actual quality, go to his blog post about the L.F. Otherwise stay here and fall victim to boredom and weariness. I know what I would do.

Anyway. There were lanterns in the form of tigers, blue-bearded dudes, turtle boats, Shanghai, sumo wrestlers, mill wheels, famous international monuments, horses and pandas, flower ladies, deer, and an enraged Asian man. There was also a large balloon. We got there in time to see it deflated.

In my limited understanding, a lantern is something one uses to cast light upon a darksituation, something one would maybe have around the house in case of a power outage. Of course, there is a different culture in Korea and in Asia in general, and so maybe there are different uses for these lanterns. They may perhaps carry greater meaning and symbolize a deep part of the Asian life and heritage. Perhaps. I was unable to glean a true understanding of said deeper meaning, though, so I walked away thinking only a) nice lanterns b) it would be really annoying to carry around that giant angry man to light your way if the electricity did go out during a storm or something.

(4) Lotte World

As previously mentioned in some other useless post on this useless blog, recently some of us spent an afternoon and an evening at Lotte World in Jamsil. Lotte is a powerful and perhaps wicked consumerism conglomerate out in the Japan/Korea area. Lotte World is a mongo amusement park that has allegedly set many world records and which allegedly gets around 8 million visitors each year, not including Pete, Kelly, Dawna, and I. There is an enormous portion of it that is indoors, quite reminiscent of Camp Snoopy in Minnesota, and there is a gigantic portion of it that is outdoors, quite reminiscent of Valley Fair in Minnesota. For those who have never been to Camp Snoopy, Valley Fair, or Minnesota, my most sincere apologies. But: there is a wild plethora of rides in each. While the target age group at Lotte World is elementary school children, we had no trouble reducing ourselves to that maturity level. Our jaws dropped in wonder at the wild fun that could be had on or in the roller coasters, themed rides, free-fall drops, terrifying 3D videos, swinging boats, and escalators there. Our biggest regret was not being able to go on a ride that was entitled Atlantis. Perhaps that time will come later on in life.

Eh. We went for my birthday. The lines were long because it was a Saturday. The trip was very spontaneously planned. We got cheaper tickets because we arrived after 4. I want to go again and feel young for another day. Call me if you want to come with.

I stole these pictures from Kelly. She was not impressed with them. I was. Deal with it.

*The only reason I took this photo was because as I walked by these creatures, I muttered to myself, "If only you knew how many of your kind have died on, in, or under a car driven by one of my friends or family..."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Over and Over and Over Again

Almost every Monday since mid-autumn last year has been an intentional late night of work for myself and my head teacher, Mr. Sullivan, at school. We usually order pizza and Coke, stay in the building until around 9 or 10, and exchange Youtube videos or musical selections to keep ourselves at least a little bit distracted. I go in with the assumption that I will work until I get tired and want to go home to bed; no recreation is done on Mondays.

However, this tradition of spending an unhealthy amount of time at CCS is ending, as Mr. Sullivan's better half has told him that those late nights not being at home are done. I do not know if Mr. S. will mourn the conclusion to this run. And I do not know if I will keep it up. Time will tell. But what the streak's termination makes me think about was the idea of tradition, the rituals that we carry out routinely and needlessly. When I think about them in my own life, I realize that the simple truth is this: I love traditions.

I am inherently a routine-driven dude, which contributes significantly to my affinity for these ritualistic practices, but routine is something we have to do and has an obligatory connotation with it. Tradition is something we want to do, or at least I want to do, even if it is merely for the sake of doing every year, or month, or week.

My mother instilled in me the tradition of...tradition. Every year we do the same activities for holidays: open our Christmas presents according the sneaky way my mom has numbered them, eat off the special plate reserved for the birthday-haver, and search for Easter baskets. There are other seasonal customs, too. The back-to-school shopping trip (for us as teachers as well as students), a meal at Mrs. Lady's in Spirit Lake, a "Congratulations! You finished another year successfully!" sign at the conclusion of each school year...that type of thing.

The casual observer might conclude that my mom was the one to blame for my stubborn love of rituals, but those in the know are well aware that my father played a role, as well. As legend has it, there was one fateful April morning during my fourth grade year, a morning on which my dad mused aloud, “Reub, the Twins start their season tonight. Should we go?” The question seemed rhetorical. However, upon arriving home from school, my dad told me to bring an overnight bag to my piano lesson, because he was picking me up afterward and we were going to Minneapolis. Thus began the string of home openers that we attended, a streak I broke two years ago and regrettably have not been able to resurrect. Sad face.

When I left for Bethel, I happened to land in the company of folks who only encouraged traditions within me, those these conventions were far cries from my mom's annual homemade Valentine's Day cards. One such tradition occurred on Nelson third floor every Monday after the football game was over and was simply entitled “Naked Time.” Figure it out. Another practice was a slow, groovy dance performance by my roommate Jake and I every Friday when our third roommate went home for the weekend. The tradition of the finals week all-nighter also started here. Boo-yah.

My mom stilled played a role. She made (and still makes) a pilgrimage up to Arden Hills every fall, and we always went to the Olive Garden with a friend of choice some evening, and hit up Perkins after going to church, and honked as we went by Martin Luther High School in Northrop, Minnesota, where Jake got educated.

Undoubtedly this maternal figure of mine was pleased with the lot I fell in with. My sophomore year, the traditions that are the most memorable to me were born: Friday cleaning (and the ensuing dance to any and every Michael Jackson song ever), Monday night Bible study, hackey sack in the lobby, Airband, and Tie-Day Friday, which is the only one of the fabled aforementioned activities that I still carry on to this day. I could talk about Tie-Day Friday until I am blue in the face. I love it.

Certainly the strangest of the rituals I partook in was Sleep Naked Monday, a night on which my roommate (whom I will leave nameless) and I would sleep – in our separate beds, alone – with no clothes on. We tried to get others to join – in their own separate beds, alone – but without luck. Sunshine wouldn't join because he slept naked every night anyway. Other bizarre customs were started and continued during that time of my junior year: Lissner 403's wild, air-guitar rendition of “Elegy” by Becoming the Archetype, weird Star Wars light saber (read: pool cue) fights that I did not actually take part in, and the event I am most proud of being a part of: the Off-Holiday Halloween Dance Party.

Graduation happened, and two summers with YouthWorks! spurred on other traditions, such as dressing up like morons on Fridays, the absolutely abominable Friday garbage run from the Potter's House to Community Mission, Rick James, Pizzookie, and grilling. The YouthWorks! Week is extremely organized and repetitive, so it is hard to distinguish here between routine and tradition. The lines get blurred.

The last stage, the final stage, is now. Most traditions that I carried out of college ate the dirt sandwich - especially Sleep Naked Monday - but new ones sprung up in their place. At Poly School, instead of working late Monday nights, Scott and I would always go devour fried chicken until they had to physically restrain us. Ten-Mile Britt and Megan “He's Climbin' in Your Window, He's Snatchin' Your People Up” Schwartz and I used to meet up at random locations on Line 2 every week and then wander around, trying to decide where to eat. And, for a while, even putting something moronic in between “Megan” and Schwartz” became somewhat of a routine practice on this very blog.

Who knows how long these things will last. Perhaps each tradition held is a way to define certain periods of one's life: choosing a birthday meal and Mrs. Lady's were high school for me, Halloween dance parties and Airband were college for me, blog writing and working late on Mondays have been Korea for me. But what then of the streaks that continue pervasively, like Tie-Day Friday? What do those define? Our true, core character? That I really only care about looking snazzy? Who knows. I will think about it as I open up the package of birthday presents that my mom sent me.