Author: Chris Tharp

So Long and Thanks for All the Clicks

Hey folks. As you may have noticed, we’ve run out of gas here at Sweet Pickles & Corn. It was a good go, but maintaining consistently quality, long-form pieces as a big group blog (where no one ever gets paid) just proved too much to bear, so we finally came to a sputtering halt.

I’m absolutely proud of the work we put out over our year and a half of glory. This blog won two awards in that relatively brief time, and we cultivated a very large audience of readers. Alas, many of life’s greatest things are short-lived.

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting.

In the meantime, I’ve gone solo. I’ve started a new personal blog which focuses on current events and U.S. politics as seen from abroad. Please check it out and give it all your support. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you, Pox Americana. Read, like, comment, share.

I’d especially like to thank all of my fellow agitators who made this thing so glorious. I encourage all of you to go solo as well. Who knows, maybe we can regroup in the near future and breathe life into SP&C once again?

Until, then it’s adios, sayonara, Tschüss, and annyeong.

Thanks again, guys.

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90% Norway, 10% Bangladesh

by Chris Tharp

Korea, Sparkling!

Some years back this slogan was trotted out for the world to see by the nation’s tourist board, to the snickers of the more jaundiced expats on the peninsula. Over cold mugs of Cass and Hite we shook our heads, rolled our eyes and once again thought: Must they try so hard? CNN International was bombarded with commercials featuring lithe, leggy girl groups strutting through the streets of Seoul, while b-boys twisted, popped and busted moves along the banks of the mighty Han River; Pop star Rain flashed his six-pack abs while lauding the virtues of bibimbap in stilted, awkward English; lasers shot from atop gleaming skyscrapers and fireworks showered over packs of smiling youths who wildly danced, leapt, and celebrated the fact that not only had the Korea stepped into the future, but it was now its new standard-bearer.

And you know what? Maybe they weren’t trying so hard after all. Perhaps they were right. After all, South Korea really is a land of uber-modern marvels. Cutting edge technology permeates the society in a way that I have yet to see matched in any of my other travels–and this includes visits home to America, that great land of ideas and innovation that birthed such luminaries such as Apple, Intel and Google. Smart phones are omnipresent, and as the most wired country on Earth, the internet is rarely more than a spit away. Dirt cheap PC rooms are almost always within eyeshot, and wifi is available in most public places, including the country’s trains and subways. That’s right, you can sap free, high-speed internet out of the air while traveling hundreds of feet underground in an aluminum tube. Crazy stuff. Take that, Japan.

When I first arrived in Korea I was astounded by the modernity–by the buses, reader boards, hi-speed trains, and multicolored neon signs that hypnotized me on my nightly strolls. These people are really riding the crest, I thought. Korea is a twenty-four hour gig, with decked out restaurants, stores, cafes, bars and clubs whose doors are open until the early morning. Some never close at all. The sidewalks pulse with throngs of well-scrubbed young folks sporting straight-off-the-rack clothes, and the streets are full of shiny, new, immaculate cars: Most Koreans don’t do second hand. In these ways and more it made good ol’ Seattle—home to modern giants Microsoft and Boeing—seem positively provincial.

But despite this well-constructed veneer of modernity, you don’t have to look too far to see the older, shabbier, decidedly less-glamorous Korea. There are cracks in Korea’s glistening new pavement, with the old country oozing right back up to the surface. Despite all of the attempts at chic modernity, Korea still keeps one toe firmly planted in the Third World. Dog soup restaurants, while technically illegal, can be found serving up steaming bowls of Fido on sketchy sides streets. The rivers and streams of the big cities turn into superhighways of human shit after a good rainstorm, and the reek of raw sewage often wafts from storm drains, made especially rank during the summer months, when the punishing heat percolates the crappy brew. Impoverished senior citizens scrounge the streets and apartment blocks for scraps of cardboard and sell odd things from even odder locations. The other day I was emerging from a multi-million dollar subway station with LED monitors, glass elevators and the obligatory wireless internet, when there, just ten feet from the exit, sat a ninety year-old woman selling three dead octopuses and a pile of tree bark. New Korea, meet the old.

Where the old school really rears its uncouth head is in some of the local folks’ behavior and practices, both public and otherwise. People ride their motorcycles on the sidewalk and aggressively honk at pedestrians in the way. Traffic laws, while enforced more than before, are still pretty much optional, at least according to the drivers in my home city of Busan. People get drunk as hell, bellow and stagger, puke on the sidewalk and pass out in the street with disturbing regularity. When confronted by the timid police, it’s often the cops themselves who are abused. Men over the age of fifty hock phlegm, spit with impunity and piss pretty much anywhere they please, especially after sundown. Forming lines has still yet to totally catch on, and hardscrabble old women jostle, push, and throw elbows in the streets, subways and markets, with nary an “excuse me” nor a glance of regret.

Yes, rest assured: Rough old Korea is still alive and well, and I’m not sure if any amount of eyelid-enhancement surgeries, Galaxy smart phones, or Angel-in-Us coffee shops will change that. Some habits are just too hard to break.

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drunk in korea 2

sidewalk

It was Saturday afternoon and I stood there in the station with two buddies from Busan: Scraggs, who hails from Essex, England, and Johnny “The Greek,” who actually grew up in Ontario.

“We should have gotten our tickets beforehand,” lamented Scraggs in his southern English whine. “They always sell out early on weekends.”

“That’s all right,” shrugged The Greek. “Korean busses are pretty plush.”

“But there’s no bogs on the buses,” Scraggs further moaned. “What am I to do if I have to go for a slash?”

“Maybe lay off the beer this time,” I chimed. “It’s a three-hour ride. We wouldn’t want you to piss your pants. Again.”

“I didn’t piss my pants. It was just a bit of dribble.”

“Dribble my ass.” The Greek smirked. “It looked like a fuckin’ map of Antarctica.”

Scraggs had indeed wet himself during the bus ride from Busan to Gumi the night before. The beer downed at the hof in the bus station, plus the several cans supped on board pushed his bladder to the breaking point. As there were indeed no ‘bogs’ on the bus, he was forced to improvise. He managed to fill two of the big cans back up with a warmer vision of their previous contents, without being noticed by any of the mostly snoozing passengers. But the timing of the withdrawal had been misjudged, resulting in massive leakage, which presented itself as a clearly visible stain of shame on the crotch of his jeans. There was no hiding it, and The Greek and I howled as he descended the steps of the bus into the frigid December night.

We were in Gumi, a windswept town that sits at the base an imposing sheer ridge, about 30 minutes north of the city of Daegu. We were on the road, bringing The Ha-Ha Hole–our standup comedy show–to mostly foreign folks living in Korea’s hinterlands. That’s right, on weekends we sometimes traveled around the country telling kimchee and dick jokes to smoky bars full of fellow drunken expats, where we were paid in cheap beer and, on the good nights, a free hotel room. This was a hobby of sorts–a good way to break up the day-to-day monotony of teaching English conversation to half-dead university freshmen, though it could be said that the ESL racket and stand up comedy are almost the same thing: You gotta entertain the troops, and you know when you’re bombing because it happens a lot.

gumi

The night before, we gigged at a watering hole owned by a young English woman and her bleary-eyed, teetering South African husband. Like most expat bar proprietors I’ve met, he freely ignored the warnings and got very high on his own supply. He was a good guy though, despite looking like he had probably killed a man at one point. It was wintertime and freezing, the kind of cold that’s makes your skin hurt. The place was poorly heated and we could see the steam of our breath as we each stood in front of a half-lit Christmas tree and attempted, through chattering teeth, to deliver jokes into the mike. The fifty-person crowd stuffed into the joint was looking to have a good time and was generous in both its drinking and laughter. They were mainly from South Africa as well, evident from the preponderance of bright, blond hair and violent booing when, during an improvised bit, I made the mistake of mentioning their arch-nemeses, the New Zealand All Blacks, recent winners of the Rugby World Cup.

It was a raucous night and we had now mostly slept our hangovers off, so after striking out at the train station, the three of us poured into a taxi and were ferried across town to a forlorn bus depot, where we procured tickets to get us out of Dodge. But the bus didn’t leave for three more hours, so we killed the afternoon with a much-needed soak and sauna, where Scraggs and I marveled at the maelstrom of hair springing forth from The Greek’s back. According to The Greek—whose parents come from the old country—his mother is quite fair, but his father is a real hairball, hailing “from a part of Greece where the Turks were a bit more aggressive with the raping.” The public bath hides nothing, and it was clear that he indeed took after the old man in spades. So after bathing we returned to the bus station relaxed and refreshed and got on board, ready for a safe and happy journey to the city of Suwon, a satellite of Seoul and home to our next gig.

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Korean long-distance buses are generally as comfortable as it gets, with plenty of leg room and seats that recline to nearly forty five degrees. They’ve got plentiful heat in the winter and air-con in the summer. The passengers are quiet–usually sleeping the hours away or taking in movies on their smart phones or tablets–and the busses almost always run ahead of schedule. This is due to the diligence of the drivers, who nearly always pilot the things like kamikazes heading straight to the deck of an American carrier. It’s a pure heavy metal roots medley when a Korean driver burns down the road and this driver was no exception: He was a Highway Star Hell Bent on driving Balls to the Wall.

Yeah, the bus was often approaching speeds of Mach 1 on a highway jammed with weekend traffic, but that was no bother: we were all used to it. Sure, he regularly hit the brakes with desperate, jarring stomps. This jostled the bags stashed above and sent our foreheads slamming into the seats in front of us, but not an eyebrow was raised. No one whined, spoke up, yelled or exhibited the slightest outward sign of alarm. We were on a bus in Korea and everything was how it was supposed to be.

My first sign that this time may be different came about an hour and a half into the three-hour journey. I was listening to a mix of PJ Harvey songs on The Greek’s i-pod that he had most generously lent me, since my phone’s battery was long dead. It had been years since I had really rocked to Polly Jean, and I sat immersed, rediscovering all of those great old cuts from Rid of Me and Dry, as well as savoring her newer, more down-tempo stuff. At one point I took a break and looked over to The Greek, whose whole being was focused onto the tiny screen in front of his face. His brow was furrowed and his dark eyes made beams.

“Hey Greek, this is awesome. I’m listening to your PJ Harvey file right now. Do you know how long it’s—-”

“Not now dude. I’m in the middle of this.”

“What is that?”

“What does it look like? A fuckin’ game.”

“I know that. What kind of game?”

“It’s a driving game. Take a look.”

He tilted the screen my way and went about clicking and thumbing the controls.

“I’m driving the bus.”

“Okay.”

He was driving a large passenger bus on an elevated highway in a generic city. There appeared to be moderate traffic. “Check this out,” he nodded, jerking the bus into a side lane and smashing into several cars, which flipped and spun out of control.

“Yes!” He then plowed through the guardrail, causing the bus to plummet far down to the lower level, which resulted in even more mayhem and destruction–crushing cars, motorcycles, vans, and trucks–until it finally came to a full stop. This just turned the bus into giant obstacle that other vehicles hurtling down the road, in turn, smashed into. It was a rolling snowball of complete havoc and spectacular chaos—all shattered glass, bent metal, fire and thick smoke–depicted with realistic, violent, state-of-the-art graphics. Who knows? The programmers were probably Korean.

He turned to me with a possessed grin. “The point of the game is to destroy as much as you possibly can.”

“Cool,” I said, putting the ear buds back in. “I used to play a similar game at my friend’s place.”

He continued the game and I went back to scrolling through his massive digital library, never once stopping to chew on the fact that The Greek was crashing a virtual bus while riding on a real one. Wasn’t this just a bit odd? A brazen temptation of fate? Evidently not, because I gave it no pause: This is just what people do on busses in Korea.

It happened during the intro to a song by Strawberry Switchblade—an obscure gothic synth-pop duo from the 1980’s that I was amazed he had on file. The driver hit the brakes hard. I felt my whole body sucked forward by gravity. I braced myself with my right arm, and then…

BOOM!!!

This was felt more than heard.

“Fucking ‘ell!” shouted out Scraggs

The brakes locked and the tires ground against the pavement, screeching for what seemed like minutes, until the bus eventually came to a halt.

“Holy shit.” The Greek turned off his game and sheepishly stashed it.

I ripped out the buds and exhaled. “We just hit something for real.”

All the passengers stayed in their seats, momentarily stunned.

“Ayaya! Aya! Aya!” A fat guy sitting in the back row theatrically gripped his neck in mock pain. I could see won signs flashing in his squinting eyes.

We all sat for what must have been thirty seconds, trying to figure out just what was going on. I decided to check it out for myself, so I got up and walked to the front of the bus, where I was joined by two other Korean passengers.

The bus’s lights illuminated the scene in front of us: A silver, two-door car lay largely crushed. The bus was also significantly damaged. The rear of the car looked like a smashed beer can; anyone sitting there would be liquefied. A man sat in the driver’s seat, partially enveloped by a white airbag. The bus driver was outside, shouting to him.

The three of us in the front were joined by a few other passengers, who like me, now understood the fact that not only had the bus hit the car, but that it had pushed it 100 meters down the road—devastating it in the process–until it came to rest next to the guardrail. They shook their heads, sucked air through their teeth, and exclaimed:

“Oh my!”

“Is he okay?”

“That looks bad.”

“Is anyone else in the car?”

After a minute or two the car’s driver emerged from his seat, shaken, shocked, but apparently unharmed. It was the back of the vehicle that received the brunt of the damage, and you can imagine our collective relief when the bus driver poked his head in the bus’s door and told us that the dazed man had been the only occupant.

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Korea’s efficient, modern side was the first to show its face that night, as emergency services were on the scene within minutes of the collision. The police arrived first and directed traffic around the scene. The paramedics were next, who strapped the car’s driver onto a gurney and whisked him away. Bringing up the rear was the wrecking crew, who dragged the totaled car off the road with amazing focus and speed. We marveled at their professionalism: They really had their shit together. I got the feeling that they had done that sort of thing a few times before.

The bus was damaged but driveable, and the driver managed to limp it down the highway and off an exit near the city of Cheonan, following the wrecking truck. He then pulled the bus to an area near the off ramp and told us all to wait for a few minutes; that a new bus was on the way. The wrecking crew deposited the smashed car next to several other dented husks. It must have been a dangerous stretch of highway. Wrecked car storage? Nothing was being left to chance, but what impressed me the most was the pace of the operation. Procedures had obviously been put in place and at this point we’d be able to make the show with time to spare. Bravo, new Korea.

But here’s where the baton gets passed.

The new bus arrived, with a fresh new driver. It seemed that the bus company was keeping up its end of the bargain and guaranteeing the rest of our journey with speed and safety. We disembarked the old bus and walked in a line past the first driver, who chain-smoked with trembling hands and stared out into the night, his eyes black pits. He looked like he needed a hot shower, a massage, and about three double pours of whisky. He was traumatized and stank of regret. I pitied him.

Once on the new bus, a policeman boarded and asked if any of us needed to go to the hospital. We all declined. He then passed around a clipboard and asked for contact information of anyone who planned to visit the hospital later. This was everyone’s chance for a payday and about half the passengers bit. The three of us passed. We were fine and we knew it.

The cop bade us adieu and now it was time to get on the road. We had a new bus and a new driver and would be able to make Suwon only an hour behind schedule. After all, the show must go on.

And then he boarded the bus. Him. He sat in the seat, clicked his buckle, and turned over the engine. He engaged the gear, pulled onto the ramp, and gave a quick honk to the new driver standing next to the old bus, who smiled and flashed a ‘thumbs up’ before we poured back onto the busy highway. That’s right: the same driver who crashed the bus would be completing the route. He would go on to nearly rear-end another car and shower us with apologies, but he would see the night out. Of course. This is what happens when buses crash in Korea. There are no debriefings, no reports to be filed, no rest for the visibly shaken operator: just the continuation of work. Suck it up, ajeosshi: you’re finishing your shift. People do not miss work in old Korea. They grind it out. They endure. How do you think the country went from being one of the poorest in Asia to now, where they walk in stride with some of the wealthiest in the world?

Hard fucking work. That’s how.

Sparkling, indeed.

(This essay appears in my latest book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, available via Amazon and other purveyors of words.)

Visualize Whirled Peas

by Chris Tharp

Oh North Korea, such a naughty little thing. How it blazes incandescent in the Western psyche. We just love to hate the place, don’t we? It’s a defiant, inscrutable nation, ruled by a blood succession of grumpy-faced, outlandishly-coiffed chubbies whose constant saber-rattling, fire-breathing, and generally bellicose bellowing raises eyebrows along with military alert levels. That’s right, North Korea talks some serious shit. On multiple occasions they have threatened to turn the South into a “sea of fire.” They have played the race card in the ugliest manner, referring to President Barack Obama as “a monkey,” and “a crossbreed with unclear blood.” More recently they’ve slandered South Korean president Park Geun-hye as “a crafty prostitute” and “America’s comfort woman.” Damn. And in one of their grander rhetorical moments of late, they labeled U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “a wolf” with a “hideous lantern jaw.” As cutting as that is, I’m not sure if I can really disagree; the former senator does indeed rock an insectoid mandible that looks like it could grind gravel into dust. But I’m told he speaks exquisite French.

Being a pariah state carries a certain amount of mystique, so it should come as no surprise that the North attracts its fair share of nutbars and self-aggrandizers. Every few months there is a story of some wide-eyed Christian preacher bum rushing the Stalinist state from the Chinese side of the border, wading across the Yalu River armed only with bags of Bibles and good news. He invariably gets arrested and paraded in front of cameras for a forced confession before the ever-beaming Jimmy Carter flies in to save the day (If he’s busy building houses somewhere, you can always call Bill Clinton). Add naive television journalists, a (probably) mentally-ill ESL teacher, and the “basketball diplomacy” of Dennis Fucking Rodman (who is rumored to have gotten so drunk during his mission to the North that he took a dump in the hallway of his hotel), and you have positive cavalcade of attention seekers who have all figured out that the road to international media coverage runs straight through Pyongyang.

Now we can add Gloria Steinem to this ever-growing list. Ms. Steinem, of course, is famous for her ceaseless agitation for the rights of women from the 1960’s on. For many years she was the face of the feminist movement and I’d like to think has generally been a force of good on this planet. She has fought for equal rights day in and day out and  for this I applaud her. She’s also ceaselessly agitated for peace, which is a good thing, right?

hippie

Peace. It’s such a seductive idea. After all, who is against peace? That’s like being anti-Christmas or hating babies. Everyone wants peace, even North Koreans, so when Ms. Steinem announced that she was co-chairing a “women’s march for peace” on the Korean peninsula, it seemed like a laudable idea, prima facie. After all, this is technically a very dangerous part of the world where hostilities could kick off again at any time, with disastrous results all around. Is there anything wrong with calling attention to that fact?

Women have often been peacemakers. After all, in the wars it is the men who do most of the fighting, leaving the women without husbands, brothers, and sons. In Aristophanes’s famous play Lysistrata, the title character attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all of the women in the town to withhold sex from their husbands. That’s right, all of the ladies go on a pussy strike and it works. Peace prevails and the people can get back to getting at it again. Thanks, women.

However, when I first read about this women’s march, which was called “Women Cross DMZ” (Someone forgot to take their creativity pills!), I for one didn’t go all tingly inside. In fact, my eyes did a 360 in their sockets. While no expert on intra-Korean relations, I have spent a decade here, read a lot on the subject, and try to keep track of the news. A peace march? Really? What were they possibly  hoping to achieve?

Gloria Steinem and the other organizers said that they wanted to bring an end to the Korean War, which technically never ended since no peace treaty was signed. Really? 65 years of conflict and loggerheads resolved by linked arms and a rousing rendition of “Cumbaya”? Please pass the barf bag.

North Korea was the first to leap at the opportunity to host this march, which should come as no surprise, since these kind of vague calls for peace and reunification are right in their wheelhouse. The North has been clamoring for a peace treaty for a long time now, which was echoed by Women Cross DMZ. The South refuses to sign for myriad reasons, laid out clearly in this excellent, in-depth article on the march over at Korea Expose. South Korea eventually agreed to let the women cross, though from the start the conservative Park government was cool to the idea. Why was that? Because such a superficial, ineffective gesture would only play right into the hands of the regime up North. And that’s just what happened.

In addition to Steinem, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates were on board for this event, Mairead Maguire (1976) from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee (2011) from Liberia, lending the affair some much-needed gravitas. But it was the inclusion of lightning rod Christine Ahn that really set some people off. She is a Korean-American activist who has been often accused of having strong North Korean sympathies. The women of course toured Kim Il-sung’s birthplace when they were up North, and the state’s official paper, the Rodong Shinmun, quotes Ahn as praising the founder, though I suspect it was manufactured. Ahn is no idiot, and it’s unlikely she would spout such nonsense knowing what sort of microscope she was already under, though some of her other quotes featured on this DC-based blog seem pretty damning. Like other Northern-apologists, she seems totally unwilling to criticize or blame the regime for any of its woes. She has also engaged in what is the South Korean left’s version of 9/11 Trutherism: the conspiracy theory that North Korea was in no way responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 44 Southern sailors died.

I don’t think that Gloria Steinem or most the women on this march were pro-North Korea, but I do think their naivete was weapons grade. Yes, they went to North Korea and met with other women (every single one of whom was vetted, coached, and selected by the regime I’m sure) to ‘hear their stories,’ were feted by the government, posed for photos, and then bussed to the DMZ, where they crossed at the Kaeseong Industrial Zone (on buses, not foot) before heading into Seoul for a meeting with fellow activists. They were met with some supporters and plenty of protesters in the South, and, according to reports, their march was met largely with derision in the local media. I wonder why?

From what I read, the people behind Women Cross DMZ believe that person-to-person contact with North Koreans will somehow magically help open up the country. This sounds so reasonable but is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of foreigners visit North Korea, and like Steinem and her sisters, they are ushered to the same spots, surrounded by minders, and only meet ‘approved’ citizens. As a result, there can never be any real, meaningful, person-to-person exchanges. It’s all staged and monitored. These women are also of the predictable Why can’t North and South Korea just sit down and talk? school. They are under the starry-eyed illusion that North Korea can be trusted or reasoned with, which it can’t. The regime has shown time and time again that it only uses negotiations as a way to squeeze concessions from the South while breaking every promise it makes. I have become a hardliner on this issue: don’t talk to North Korea. Isolation and containment must be the only policy. Anything else just rewards the people in charge, who are terrible, terrible human beings. Look no further than abject failure that was the “Sunshine Policy.”

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North Korea is probably the most awful regime on earth. We love to hate it because it IS that bad. It’s a paranoid, racist place where one “wrong” thought can have you and and generations of your family killed or sent off to a slave labor camp. Their laundry list of sins and abuses is lengthy, clear, and well-documented. The only way they can bargain anything on the international stage is through threats and fear, though hosting events such as Women Across DMZ help to ameliorate this prickly image. Posing in front of the cameras and treating both Koreas as if they are somehow equal–economically, politically, or morally–IS legitimizing that regime. It is nothing more than a propaganda coup for the pack of gansters that runs the joint. These women gladly played the role of ‘useful idiots’ while wasting everybody else’s time.

Gloria Steinem should know this; after all, this wasn’t her first rodeo. One can’t help but think her involvement in this whole silly affair was one old woman’s desperate cry for relevancy before she fades away for good. It was a condescending move, reeking of entitlement.  Here comes the wise benevolent white woman to save these wretched souls. Lasting peace has only eluded the peninsula for almost 65 years because Gloria Steinem, peace sisters in tow, never deigned to stroll across the DMZ.

And look: They made a quilt.

quilt

Can someone please smother me with it?

Bloody Monday

by Chris Tharp

I blame it on Valium. I had popped one the night before to put me down, to guarantee a full night’s rest before a busy work week, and it performed with aplomb. I was lowered into the depths of a gelatinous envelope of sleep. This was a soothing black slumber, embracing me softly while massaging the hardened flesh of my inner brain. The Valium plied its magic with chemical tendrils that, while delivering on the sleep front, stubbornly fought release come morning time. That’s right, that magic little pill will knock you the hell out, but with that comes a price: your bones become leaden, your eyes balls of cotton, and your head a cloud of steam. A proper Valium hangover can drag on for hours and hours. It’s a tough thing to shake.

Even though I am now solidly trudging down the trail of middle age, I’m still not really a morning person. I don’t suppose I ever will be. I’ve gotten better, but it just seems, at a genetic level, that I’m designed to work best at night. So, that morning, Monday, March 17th, 2014–St. Patrick’s Day–I stumble out of bed near-blind from both my natural aversion to early hours and the fog of the pill. I have gotten my sleep, but am now positively zombified. Still, I have work to do. Carpe diem and all of that shit.  My phone buzzes. It’s the station. Are you coming now?  Yes, I clumsily type back. Coming now. I slide into my black Levis, throw on my green sweater and black jacket, grab my helmet and shoot out the door to do my weekly morning radio gig. I jump onto my motorcycle–a Hyosung Troy 125– turn the key and give the engine a couple of revs before zipping off to make my first fifty bucks of the day.

The station is located in Centum City–just a ten minute ride away in the sparse early-morning traffic. Centum is a spanky new part of town featuring glass and aluminum rises which jut from the bank of the Suyeong River. City PR pimps tried to christen it “The Manhattan of Busan,” to some eye-rolls and snickers among the Westerner set; such labeling may be a bit much, but that morning the place lives up to its hype: the sun sparkles off the surface of the river and lights up the side of the gleaming buildings, creating a brilliant scene. For a moment all seems right in the world

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I arrive at the station at 7:10, ride the elevator to the 4th floor, scan my fingerprint, enter the studio, greet the producer and host, slither behind the mic and sleepwalk through the bit (a ten minute weekly sports round up). Afterwards I fly out the door, stumble down the stairs, and mount my bike once again to head back home where I plan to shower, eat, change into my work clothes, and most importantly, take down multiple cups of inky coffee to help blast me out of my haze. My first class is at 9 am at my school, again just a couple minutes’ ride from my front door.

I cruise through the nearly-empty streets of Centum, eager to get home as soon as I can. The air is still frigid from the night and slices through my coat, causing me to shiver beneath my sweater. This helps to keep me awake as I press on. I turn left onto a larger road that that spans the slow moving river as a bridge. To my right is the massive sewage treatment plant. The dank sweet smell of human waste mixed with soil radiates from the huge concrete fertilizer silo, on which is painted an unfinished marine-themed mural featuring the phantom silhouettes of fish. I then come to a much bigger intersection and stop. The light is red. Across the way I observe the slow lurch of a construction crane putting up an apartment block. It’s now around 7:40 and traffic is just beginning to pick up. It’s no longer a ghost town out here, but things are still empty enough. I sigh and fight the urge to close my heavy lids. I need to get home and caffeinate, now. The light is still red. I see a car blasting down the right lane. After him, I think. This is Korea, after all, where traffic lights are merely suggestions. I wait for the car to pass. I then figure the way is now clear, twist the throttle and go…

redlight

Honnnnnnnnnnnnk!

It’s coming from the left. My left side. The direction where somehow, inexplicably, I had neglected to look. The scream of braking rubber on asphalt. Oh shit. My veins turn to ice. My stomach opens into sick black pit as I realize that I have just pulled out directly into the path of a speeding car.

CRACK!

I come to on the ground. It’s rough and ice cold. I feel cars whizzing by. A man stands over me bellowing in Korean: “Are you okay? Why didn’t you see me? Why didn’t you look???” My shoulder is on fire. My left leg screams. I try to move. Agony. Nausea.

“Don’t! Stay still!”

I look down and see that my left leg, about halfway down below the knee, is sticking out at a 90 degree angle. The jagged end of the shin bone sticks out through black denim. There is blood. “My leg… my leg,” I manage in Korean. A siren in the distance. Then I pass out.

lights

There are now several men around me. Uniforms. They crouch down and take hold: “One, two, three.” A supernova of pain explodes up my leg while I’m shifted onto a stretcher. I lift into the air and am loaded in the back of the ambulance. The door slams shut and the paramedic speaks to me in English: “You are going to be okay.” Decent English. The vehicle engages into gear and we’re off, siren crying outside. “This will help with the pain.” A pinprick as he finds a vein. Again, I pass out.

I come to in the hospital. I’m on a gurney. I see white walls, the lurid lights of the E.R. I’m afraid to look at my leg because I’m sure it looks like I stepped on a land mine. The pain has largely vanished, though. Hooray for drugs! There are three doctors milling about, consulting. One of them hands me my phone and tells me to call someone close. I try Minhee. She doesn’t pick up. It’s early. Still asleep. I hand it back to the doctor, so smart in his lab coat. He looks like a kid. I’m surely his hyung. In a restaurant he’d be pouring my drinks. He starts working down the list of  people on my call log. I begin to fade out until he hands me the phone once again.

“Hello, Chris? What’s happening?” It’s my co-worker Cheryl.

A while later the doctors wheel me into another room under brighter lights. “We will now set your fracture,” the young one says in well-pronounced English. “You will feel…” he searches for the word, “…intense pain.”

Just then my boss, Professor Park, appears. She’s a tall, refugee-skinny woman of about sixty. She greets the doctors with an “Annyeonghaseo?” followed by a tiny bow. They return the greeting and and have a short exchange. She takes one look at my leg and the color drains from her face. “Uh, Chris… you’re classes are covered… it is okay. Don’t worry. No problem.”

She looks again to the carnage.

“Fighting!” she says for encouragement, making a bony fist to emphasize the point. She smiles a nervous smile then disappears. The doctors grab my leg. I can feel the bones freely floating as they begin to wrestle with it in an attempt at a set. I scream through the veil of painkiller coursing through my veins until the manhandling stops. They apply a splint and wheel me back out to the E.R., and inform me that I’ll require surgery right away.

In the meantime I’m wheeled into several other rooms for X-rays and a scan to make sure my head is okay. Thankfully my helmet did its job and everything is fine upstairs. Also, there is no neck/spinal injury. It seems my mangled leg is the worst of it, which at this point doesn’t seem so bad, since I now know that, even though I have a long road to recovery, I’ll be okay. A warm wave of relief mixes with the drugs as I am wheeled back into the E.R.

As I sit in the E.R., afloat on the gurney, Minhee finally arrives, rushing in in a panic. She is crying. She tells me that her battery was dead and she missed the flood of phone calls that deluged her device for three hours after the wreck. She describes her exchange with my boss, Professor Park, how when she finally reached her, Professor Park (a constantly proselytizing born-again Christian) only told Minhee that she “must pray.”

“But how is he?” Minhee pleaded. “Will he be okay?”

“Do you know how to pray?” Professor Park continued, oblivious to Minhee’s desperate query. “I will teach to you pray.” Unable to get a straight answer out of the woman, Minhee hung up the phone and jumped a taxi, fearing the worst.

When she finally kisses me I am on my phone, letting the Facebook universe know what has happened, that I’ve suffered a motorcycle wreck and broken my leg, but that I’ve avoided the worst and will likely come out largely unscathed in the end.

surgery

In the late afternoon I’m taken into surgery. They inject me with a spinal anaesthetic which not only numbs, but paralyzes the bottom half of my body. I can’t move a thing. Freaky. They then give me something to put me out, which doesn’t entirely do the job. I keep coming to, listening to them bang and clang around my leg. It sounds like a construction zone. I notice that throughout the procedure several doctors and nurses repeatedly check their smart phones. Even they’re addicted to the things. I hope it’s just Kakao and Facebook. Part of me dreads that the main surgeon is getting his instructions from the Korean version of Wikipedia.

The surgery goes by without any hitches, and I come out the proud owner of a metal rod and pins holding together my fractured tibia. The fibula, which was also broken, is a bone which bears no weight, and will be left alone. This, evidently, is very common among orthopedic surgeries these days. I choose to take the doctor’s word on it.

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I spend the next two nights in a group room: Five patients stuffed into a small space. But it’s not just five people: In Korea, you are expected to bring your own caretaker. The nurses change your IV’s and take your blood pressure, but the nuts and bolts of looking after someone–emptying your pee pitcher, getting you water, basic cleaning, assisting with eating–this all rests on the shoulders of your personal caregiver, which, in most cases, is a family member. Each big bed has a mini-bed that rolls underneath it for storage, so five people in the room becomes ten. Add the fact that several of the “patients” don’t seem to be really hurt at all (staying in the hospital for insurance claims, I’m told), and all day the room becomes a coffee-klatch for middle aged Korean ajummas and ajeoshis to sit and yap at crazy volumes. I’m in severe pain with a painkiller that isn’t even coming CLOSE to dealing with the discomfort I got going on, and all I can do between bouts of moaning is to fantasize about defenestrating my roommates from the 9th story window.

The next day Minhee has me moved into a private room, where I am given peace and quiet, along with a big bag of self-dosing fentanyl that finally allows me to recoup with a modicum of serenity. I stay in that hospital for a week and a half before transferring to a cheaper and more convenient location, where I pass the remainder of my stay. My Facebook and email is abuzz with messages from both Korea and around the world. A steady stream of friends and well-wishers visits me daily. At times my room resembles a small party. I’m presented with plates of food, envelopes of cash to help offset the expense and books. Books are delivered en mass and I chew through them, particularly charmed by an account of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and the hilarious/bleak graphic novels of Daniel Clowes. I am well rested, happy, and above all, thankful. I feel calmer and more positive than I have in years. I’m released on the 18th day and start back at work the following Monday.

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Today is the one year anniversary of that nasty wreck, that day where, if the dice would have come up a bit differently, I may not even be here typing today. The whole time I was laid up I kept telling myself: It could be worse. And it could have. I could have ended up dead or eating jello for a living. I got fucked up. I got hurt but bounced back quickly, and trip around the sun later I’m back in action. My leg is 95% there. I walk miles daily and hike several times a week. When hobbling around last spring, unable to partake of any of the physical joys that we associate with warming weather, I promised myself that once my leg was healed I was use it with a vengeance, that I would make walking even more of a priority in my life and so far I have delivered on that. This summer I’ll go on a massive hike either here in Asia or that States (haven’t decided yet), and I’m planning to do an epic jaunt here in Korea in the future, one that could take me up the entire spine of the country on foot.

My motorcycle was destroyed in the wreck and sold off for parts to a garage. I haven’t been on a bike since, though I haven’t forsworn riding again in the future. I rode for nearly ten  years without a serious incident, and may have hit eleven had I been a bit more awake that morning. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking. I had gotten absolutely placid on a route that I had ridden a hundred times before, and it nearly cost me my life. I broke the first rule of crossing the road, taught to us all by our mothers when we’re just beginning to totter along on our feet:

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I believe I will ride again, but only for open-road travel. I won’t ride a motorcycle for my daily transportation in a city such as Busan where so many people drive like crackheads. Sure, this crash was my fault, but next time it may be someone else asleep at the wheel, and they may not even brake.

Of course it was my wife Minhee who really carried the weight while I was hurt. She dealt with the doctors, the insurance, the police, our home, our animals, the bills, my work, and most importantly, me. At one point she literally wiped my butt. This actually happened, and no, I’m not proud. She was hoping to avoid such a chore until well into our elderly years, but we don’t always get to choose the whens and where’s, now do we?  I am thankful to have married such a terrific woman. It took getting maimed to really appreciate tying the knot. In sickness and in health…

Korea proved its mettle, at least as far as its health system goes. I was delivered to a state-of-the-art hospital within thirty minutes of my wreck and patched up by doctors who knew what the hell they were doing, even if they felt the need to chat on their phones in the operating room. Sure, they do a few things different than the west, but in the end I was taken care of and not left with staggering debt, even given the fact that the national insurance made me reimburse them since the crash was my fault. This was something that I was ignorant of going in: Korean national health insurance doesn’t cover some things deemed too risky or negligent on behalf of the claimant. They’ll pay the bill but come to collect it later. Luckily, my friends in Busan passed the hat and raised a lot of money to help take the sting out of that, but all said and done a full surgery and two and a half week stay in a private hospital room clocked in less than eight thousand dollars. Add another zero to those digits and we just may be approaching the bill in America, sans insurance.

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So here I am, scarred but alive. I’m not able to sprint yet and my shoulder is a bit sore at times, but I can’t complain. As I lay there in that hospital bed with my leg jacked up, I often thought, I wonder how I’ll feel in a year’s time? Well today I got the answer: pretty damned good, and if you want to know, I’ve now switched to Xanax. It’s much easier on the system the next day.

 DCF 1.0