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  cadoges.com

photo via cadoges.com

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. 


Hypocrisy, heroes and environment

photo via loco

In a recent article in the The Guardian, North Face founder and environmental champion Doug Tompkins has expressed a hard line against technology, arguing that it is destroying the health of the planet and bringing an end to evolution itself.

My environmental sympathies are well documented, but Tompkins' brand of solution says more about him than the problem at hand. It can also be summed up with a single quote: 

"I did not want to compromise my engagement so I was forced to use the very technology that is undoing the world," he says. "I have a strategic embrace, not a substantive embrace. The problem is that 99.9% of the people in our own movement love this thing, they think this is going to lead us to the promised land. I have no such pretensions."

I won't try to dissect everything wrong with that statement, and admittedly I'm a bit awestruck that Tompkins, and Tompkins alone, possesses the wisdom and temperance to responsibly wield the destructive forces of technology. One ring to rule them all. Regardless, there's a deeper problem here than pure narcissism, namely that Tompkins' claim to authority is based on his position at the evolutionary peak of the system he's deriding.

Doug Tompkins' personal wealth numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars, all of which was generated through the tools of technological innovation and the petroleum economy. Tompkins encourages others to contemplate their cell phones, to see that they encompass every aspect of the system that is destroying our planet, yet he fails to run the same thought experiment on the products he created. Products like North Face jackets—mass produced with high-tech Gore-Tex and distributed globally with complete reliance on petroleum and computer automation. Tompkins lack of pretensions aren't relevant to his enormous role in the techno-industrial society he's criticizing and the massive wealth he's generated from it. 

What is relevant is that Tompkins has the good fortune to consider society's actions (in a relatively holistic way) from a world perspective. It's this type of perspective that leads to genuine sustainability, and the point he misses is that technology is enabling that perspective for more people than at any other time in human history, including Tompkins himself. Everything he has accomplished rests on the laurels of the high tech world. He claims we don't see the impact of technology because it's become invisible to us like air, but he's blind to technology's role in his own success.

Environmental destruction has always occurred. Jared Diamond's Collapse showed that many previous cultures were very good at engineering their own demise, without the help of the internet and tablet computers. Eliminating electronic devices isn't a sufficient condition for environmental salvation. In all likelihood it's not even a necessary one. The environment will outlast any folly humans can come up with. It may take it a million years for nature to heal once we're gone, but what does the earth care about time? Our challenge is our own preservation and that will only come as we collectively accept the natural world for what isan integral part of ourselves.

Tompkins deserves no criticism for his business success or environmental contributions, nor should his warnings be dismissed because of his personal hypocrisies. The criticism is that he's a paragon for one of the most poisonous and pervasive myths of the environmental movement—that the environment needs saving, and that he is the man for the job.