Seoul Saver

Dark beer with bourbon is one of my favorite combinations. I'd like to take credit for it, but in my circles that belongs to friend from Vancouver who favours extreme solutions to any given problem.  And a solution it is, a rare one in Korea, but finding it always leads to a good night. This time I find it in Seoul.

Aside from the airport it's my first trip to the capital. I've had a lot of goals over the past fourteen months and dropping $500 on two nights of food and booze hasn't figured highly into them. Not to mention the thought of flying solo through a 25 million person city has been pretty underwhelming. This was a recon trip only. Find a workable hotel, a great place for food, and save the last day of the long weekend to chill out at home. All I needed was a landing shore. A foothold for future invasions. 

A hotel is easy enough. Korea's littered with cheap and comfortable rooms, available by night or the hour for students and the surreptitiously married looking for a place to shag. For food, the target was Mozzie's, an upscale Kiwi bar in Itaewon specializing in red meat comfort food including lamb shanks, steaks and burgers, served with proper sides of potatoes and greens. Exiting the subway, I also forgot it was half way up Hooker Hill, which is exactly what it sounds like.

"Handsome man, you are very welcome!?!"

"Thanks, maybe next time ladies."

The streetside entrepreneurs were welcoming, but I almost turned around after entering the bar. It was beautiful. Intimate lighting, a large hardwood bar, great seating, and it was almost totally empty. 

Fuck it. Nothing was going to happen tonight, and moving to the next place would be a 15 minute walk that may well end with nowhere to sit. The food and drink should be a slam dunk, as should a good night's sleep afterwards. 

And it was. A bar seat with Coopers Irish Stout and a double of Basil Hayden's ran 40,000 won (about $40). I would have gone with Woodford's Reserve but that's $20 more, for no reason outside of Korea's psychotic import system. The money I saved covers dinner, an excellent meatloaf with mash and peas. I was finished and full with a quarter of a beer and a shot of bourbon left in my glass. The place was starting to fill up, so I took the owners advice and tried one his Japanese Single Malts. I chose the Hibiki, knowing that a double wouldn't totally break the bank. The girl at the bar delivered it neat with a fresh glass of water.  

Living in Korea is like being stuck in a desert. Not in the abandoned absence way. More in the way that opportunity comes like oases between oceans of sand, and the past couple of months have been more sand than water. Early on, I made the mistake of asking women out directly, as if being an adult was a valid strategy. Korea doesn't work that way. Lead in and body language notwithstanding, asking for a date or a number is usually a dead end. You're more likely to get a dodge or an invite to an indefinite chase at their work or some other safe space. On the other side, people will jump straight into bed if given a socially structured or hidden back door,... so to speak.  

It's a problem. Futility versus constructing scenarios within a severe language deficit. The part I'm not sure about is if the story holds in larger cities.

I glance up from my my phone and the bar girl is reaching for the camera next to my drink.

"Do you own one?" 

"I take pictures but usually with my phone. Can I see?"


I hand over my phone while she's looking at the camera.

"There's not much there. I post most my stuff on Instagram."

"There's such a good feeling from your pictures."

"If there isn't a good feeling with something, I won't do it."

"Are you a professional?"

"No, this is just for fun."

She gives me her hand and introduces herself. Korean's are renowned for long, fishy handshakes, the kind that leave you with crawling skin and a deep-seated need to wash.  It's different with some firmness and flirtation. We keep talking until I pay my bill. She hands me a business card as I'm leaving.

"This is me. My cell number is here. You can call me next time you're in Seoul."

"I will."


Sunday is a write off for exploration. It's pouring rain, so I head to the Canucks Bar before catching the train to Suncheon. The waitress stays to chat while I wait for my burger. After food, I take a drink to the window seat and write. 

The cosmopolitan is excellent. The table is high and stable. My chair is comfortable, and words flow easily between views of the rain and sips from my glass. That's what Seoul has been, a basic ease impossible to find in Suncheon. The relaxed pleasures of a rainy day and an opportunity written in numbers on the business card tucked in my back pocket. 

Mozzie's at the ITW Hotel. 126-7 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-Gu, Seoul.

Canucks Restaurant & Bar. 145, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Abandoned in Yeosu

Korea is like a giant abandoned place.

The culture values the new and the modern above everything. New office buildings go up beside crumbling homes with traditional tiled roofs long left deserted. Entire "downtowns" are constructed beside older city centres scarcely decades old. You would expect the changes to create some visual drama and a sense of energy, but they don't. The blocks blur together in a kind of featureless disposability.

Yeosu offers a change. I take the 20 minute train ride from Suncheon to see the ocean and feel like I'm back on the waterfront of Vancouver or Victoria. The illusion holds as long as I don't look back. The view away from the water puts me more in mind of a Stephen King novel or an episode of The Walking Dead.

Three years ago, Yeosu hosted Expo 2012 and the waterfront is still dominated by its pavilions and pedestrian thoroughfares. It's empty in February, but unlike most areas in Korea the emptiness takes on a sense of scale and story. 

The Expo grounds follow a broad arc from the train station to the roadway that connects Odongdo Island to the shore. A scaled replica of Dubai's Burj al-Arab marks the start of the road, while in the middle of the bay the Big Othe non-orgasmic centre piece of the world fairstands upright like a vast upended hula hoop. The major pavilions are scattered amidst these points, along with a single carousel that turns circles without customers. Rust has already crept into the buildings and hand rails. There is no one around, and the inevitable loneliness of the place is covered over with a garish stream of Kpop music from the public address system. 

It's a photographers dream.  

MVL Hotel and the bay from Odongdo Island.

Sky Tower. 

Empty seating on the boardwalk.

Theme Pavilion

Pedestrians exiting the Theme Pavilion.

Theme Pavilion.

Walkway to the Digital Gallery.

Fashionable pedestrians.

The Big O with the Theme Pavilion in the background.

Carousel near the aquarium.

Expo mascot. Odongdo Island.

A doorway to Korea

Three years ago I was broke and unemployed, bereft of options and battling burnout and uncertainty. I had lost my job, and after a decade and a half of impeccable performance I was surrounded by the wrong people, in the wrong place, doing the wrong work. Even writing, a staple of sanity through years of transitions and travel, had abandoned me. It's taken this long to simply sit at a computer again.  

Compare that to tonight, sitting at an upscale café with a window view of the river and a cappuccino in my cup, and a lot has changed. It's alright.   

Korea's alright, but it isn't about passion or dreams. It's pragmatics. Teaching here provides decent pay, accommodation, and airfare to and from home. Add to that a government matched pension, severance pay and, if you are in the public system, ample vacation time, and the basics of living are covered pretty well.

I've never been so bored in my fucking life.

And I’m not alone. Having settled here, the biggest question for almost everyone is how long to stick it out. No amount of initial research reveals anything beyond the above mentioned perks and long trail of asinine rationalizations from teachers trying to convince themselves foremost, and their readers second, of the transformative experience Korea gave them. Underline "had" as most of this drivel is written post-exit after a rapid departure once their first year is complete.

Korea is not transformative. It's not even terribly exotic. It provides the basic necessities within a cauldron of pervasive, and mostly unacknowledged, dynamics that dominate every facet of both work and leisure time. Some are good, some aren't, but collectively they are the most important factors in living here.  

First, the language. You are not going to learn it. Put the thought right out of your mind because it isn't going to happen. I have met exactly one foreigner who is fluent, and it's only because he stayed on and married. Beyond this outlier nobody comes close, not even those who have spent a decade here. The learning infrastructure is lacking, source materials are conflicting and inconsistent, and the nature of the language itself is ambiguous. Experiences dealing in Korean are baffling beyond expectation.

During my first month, a Korean coworker tried to help me find a gym. She researched several options, made phone calls, and gave me a printed map with locations and prices. There were four options and none of them were an actual gym. I got spas, medical rehabilitation centres and martial arts dojos, but nothing with a squat rack and elliptical trainer. I've been handed two cafe mochas after ordering a single cappuccino. A friend was given a case of bananas after asking for a single fruit. Blueberry muffins become blueberry shakes. It happens all the time, even when your Korean is perfect. Even pointing and counting will fail.

Learn the alphabet, figure out basic transactions and courtesies, and forget about the rest. It's not worth the guilt or the angst.

Cultural friction is unavoidable in travel. In Korea, a major challenge is that culture dictates expectations above personal needs and all common sense. The result is that Koreans are the most ego isolated people I've ever dealt with. My high school boys are in class until 10pm and attend school on Saturdays. Adults work long hours too, and while Korean culture gains praise for fostering hard work and education, in practical terms it's a false front. The human body cannot work continuously for 12 to 16 hours a day, so school life becomes an environment of sanctioned narcolepsy. People fall asleep all the time, at desks, in their offices, or after retreating to the nurse's room. When not nodding off, younger teachers would rather be playing on their phones. Productivity comes second to appearance, and after fulfilling their responsibility people want to be left alone. I can't blame them.

The students, more than anything, need time off. They need sleep. They need to play. They need to be kids. And because they have no chance to do this after school and on weekends, English class becomes a haven for acting out. Classes can easily become a den of rambunctiousness where students do not listen, talk incessantly in Korean, and jump out from their seats to hug or hit classmates across the room.

My classes run smoothly, credit for which can go to being a giant white guy of forty years of age. That helps, but far less so than having a committed strategy for classroom management and discipline. Your life will be miserable without these tools.

Your life will be miserable, but few will talk about it. That is the single biggest challenge of Korean life - the foreigner community leaves a lot to be desired. Despite the safety of the country and the stability of the work, most people teaching here are scared. Maybe it's the cultural barriers. Maybe it’s the brutal economy back home, which left few options aside from moving to the far side of the globe to make a decent living. Maybe it's the uncertainty of leaving behind friends and loved ones for an indeterminate exile. Whatever the bones of it, it exists. You can almost smell it. Foreigners pass each other on the streets looking like they've been caught fucking their own mothers – an improbable mixture of terror, avoidance, and sheltered motives. As a whole, foreigners adopt a retarded version of Korean face, a front of pretend competency and happiness despite the pervasive challenges that are common to all. It makes most relationships fleeting and insincere. I'm fortunate enough to have a couple of good friends here. The rest of my joy comes through chance encounters with locals.

My perspective can read like an indictment, but it's nothing of the sort. Korea is nation of kind- hearted people. The streets are safe and almost entirely free of mischief, let alone crime. For the well-organized and prepared English teacher, work is easy and undemanding. That said, it's important to accept things for what they are. As I recently told a colleague over drinks, "The thing is the thing".  

Korea is a doorway, not a destination. Those were my words as I climbed on an airplane a year ago, and they remain true at the start of my second year. If you don't accept that, the country becomes a prison for the cowardly, for those who want perks without risk. The frustration of foreigners is the deficit of their own agency. Why leave if the basics are covered?

You leave because that type of certainty is the death of the soul.

Korea is not transformative, it's not epic, it’s not dangerous or threatening. It is a fair opportunity afforded by a hard working and hopeful people. The intelligent traveler accepts this and leaves their students what value they have to offer. The ingrate runs home or settles into a state of permanent exile, slowly fading under the weight of a self-created story that no one will buy.

It's easy knowing your entry point to Korea. It's mostly provided. The art is in creating an exit.

Meaning in the present moment

photo via The Bunny System

photo via The Bunny System

Roy F. Baumeister's illuminating article on meaning versus happiness shows how these two qualities often move in opposite directions. 

Happiness is a feeling state centred on "now". It's about getting the material goods that you need and want, your health, and what others do for you. Meaning comes from something entirely different: 

Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness... Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.

The difference is deeply relevant for writers. Awareness can't be turned off, and people who feel the world through a relationship between past, present and future are often left to deal with that perception in solitary and unconventional ways. Rather than a choice, the act of writing, painting, singing, or other creativity becomes an imperative. It reflects a need to bring all three aspects of time into a present moment. This is precisely what the Buddhist idea of living in the present means.

Living a meaningful life doesn't make happiness impossible, but it can be difficult in a perverse and self-reinforcing way. For a chance at happiness meaning makers need their contributions to be recognized and paid for accordingly, but that's unlikely in an economy that penalizes the pursuit of meaning.

We're forfeiting a critical opportunity. Global society's most pressing challenges demand long-term thinking and new solutions, collective solutions that connect our checkered past to a sustainable and more enlightened future. This is possible by valuing long-term meaning over disposable happiness. It's possible by empowering people who create meaning, and doing so would be a tremendous act of meaning in itself.


Bullshit job vs meaningful life

photo via

photo via

David Graeber's essay on bullshit jobs is a masterpiece that demonstrates the pointlessness of most work, the psychological and spiritual damage this brings, and the way people are fooled into directing their well justified anger towards those who build lives of true meaning.     

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the 1960s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinetmakers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish... somehow they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's endless piles of useless, badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it's all that anyone really does.
I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Indeed. The piece could be dismissed as a hippy-fueled desire for a utopian "welfare" state where nobody works and riches fall from the sky. If its possible to have that, I say why not, but there's another way to look at it that can appease the most ardent pragmatist.

In a world of rising population and dwindling oil/resources there's one quality that we have in remarkable surplushuman creativity. It's the source of any true sense of meaning, and any intelligent economy, or enterprise, would maximize that quality not stifle it.