busan

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.)

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Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the water had drained from the intersection back to the sea, but the sustained battering had shredded the esplanade that had recently been built along the sea wall. Heavy paving stones lay scattered all over the road and had rendered it impassable to the street-hugging sedans and sports cars common in that part of town.

A group of about thirty men and women had formed a line and were passing large stones off the street hand to hand and stacking them on what remained of the walkway. I wandered around and photographed the carnage, but soon began to feel guilty that my neighbors were doing all the work while I was farting around, so I started picking up stones and adding them to the stacks that were rising by the curb.

I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian fellow named Alex who was doing the same thing. It turns out he lives in the building across from mine and had been watching the storm like me from his window.  We chatted and joked about finally getting some exercise as we lugged dozens of the heavy stones off the road.

About fifteen minutes later a middle-aged Korean man from the cleanup crew approached us with an incredulous look on his face. “Wow! Thank you so much for your help!”

Why is he making a big deal about me? I thought. Everybody else was working too, most of them harder than I was. Just as I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at being singled out for praise when there were thirty other people doing the same thing, he informed me that my assembled ‘neighbors’ were in fact Haeundae district workers who had been dispatched to clear the road. Dressed in plain clothes, they were probably office workers who had been hastily conscripted into an emergency road crew, and they had arrived there so quickly after the storm that both Alex and I assumed they were locals who had spontaneously pitched in to get the traffic moving again.

This revelation made me feel a bit silly for a moment, but I was kind of enjoying it, talking and getting to know my neighbor. We kept working, now joining the line and passing the big stones hand to hand. A man came around and gave us a pair of white work gloves. After the largest stones had been moved they handed out shovels to pick up the smaller ones. After fifteen minutes of that, the job was done, and a woman handed out bottles of water and Choco pies. A man from the work crew asked me for my mailing address. I gave it to him, had a second Choco Pie, and went home feeling good about having gotten out of the house that day.


With our neighborhood back in order, the storm was already receding from my mind when a piece of mail arrived for me the next day: a thank-you card from the Haeundae District Office.

That was nice, I thought.

The day after that, I got a call from Alex. He said a reporter from the Haeundae district newspaper had called him and asked if she could interview us.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

We met her the next day in Alex’s apartment. As we sat around the table sipping coffee, she asked us why we decided to help clear stones off the road.

I told her the truth: I wrongly assumed that the people clearing the street were my neighbors, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything to help. What I didn’t tell her was that if I had known they were working for the city, I would have just taken some photos and left. I thought the implication was certainly there, but if she asked me directly I was prepared to spell it out for her: I wouldn’t have helped.

She didn’t ask. Her next question was, “In your hometown, do you help when there are disasters?” and it was instantly clear to me that she had not come all the way over here to interview some schmuck who volunteers because he doesn’t know any better; she was here to write about an exemplary citizen, a paragon of civic virtue. I smiled.

“Not really,” I said. I wanted to give her something but I was drawing a blank. There haven’t been any real disasters in suburban New York since the eradication of the natives in the 17th century.

“The worst thing that happens is sometimes we get a lot of snow, like a blizzard. Sometimes I’ve helped people dig their cars out of the snow or clear their sidewalk or their driveway so they can get out. Things like that.”

She was nodding and scribbling down the exotic details of shoveling a Westchester driveway, while noting well the implications it carries for – dare I say freedom? – in a part of the world that has effectively no public transportation. Much of this detail would find its way into her finished piece, a moving tale of two foreigners who spring to action in times of crisis to keep their hometowns safe, the traffic flowing, and their neighborhoods beautiful.

choco pieAs she was leaving, she thanked us again on behalf of Haeundae District. I told her the Choco Pies had been payment enough, and she laughed.

I wasn’t joking.


A few days later Alex called again. “The mayor would like to meet us,” he said.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

There was no saying no, so a few days later I found myself standing in the office of the Haeundae district mayor, a portly fellow in a dark suit shadowed by an entourage of six other men in dark suits. The reporter who had interviewed us snapped photos as the mayor thanked us, shook our hands, and awarded each of us a plaque that read:

Thank you very much for voluntarily participating in the Typhoon Sanba recovery efforts in Haeundae Marine City. Your invaluable service has greatly inspired and motivated us to develop Haeundae into a global city. We sincerely appreciate and admire your selfless dedication.

After posing for an official photo in front of a backdrop panorama of Haeundae Beach, we sat with the mayor and his entourage around a large table and sipped excellent tea while we recounted our story. As we spoke, a large TV monitor behind us was displaying a slideshow. I wasn’t aware of having been photographed that day, but someone had shot at least two dozen photos, which now played in a loop for the mayor, showing Alex and me in various action poses: picking up stones, passing them off, carrying them away, and laying them in stacks. The staff guys watched the slideshow, nodding and murmuring. When one photo showed me carrying three stones at a time, they murmured a little louder.

There wasn’t much of a story to tell, so the reporter helped  flesh it out with the other nuggets she had gathered, informing the mayor of my former career of digging my countrymen out of deep snow.  I took the opportunity to thank the mayor and his staff for responding so quickly to the storm. It really was fast, and it occurred to me that if it had taken longer, I wouldn’t be having tea and chatting with him right now. The reporter didn’t mention the part about us not knowing that the cleanup crew were city workers, nor did I. There just didn’t seem to be any point in bringing it up and spoiling the party.

Besides, it wasn’t as if they were using me to support a war I didn’t believe in or a product I knew to be harmful. Perhaps there were ulterior political motives – who knows? – but on the surface they seemed merely to be looking to tell an inspiring if slightly fabricated story that might guilt-trip a few nouveau riche types into being slightly more civic-minded. If that was the worst of it, I could live with that.

When the time came to leave, the mayor again took my hand and said, “Remember me!” Was that the point of all this – to make allies among the foreign community so that we’d go home and tell our wives and friends what a swell fellow he was, or maybe even to encourage us to vote for him myself if I ever got around to applying for the permanent residency visa? Or maybe this is just how you say goodbye to people when you’re the district boss – a way of reminding the faithful that someday they may be called upon to return the favor.

Whatever the case, I assured the mayor that I would indeed remember him. We said goodbye, and with my plaque tucked under my arm, I found my way outside.


In front of the building, Alex and I joked about being local heroes. “The next time they call will be to give us a parade and keys to the city,” I said, but that call of course never came. It also turned out to be the last time I saw Alex. He went back to his high-flying IT job, and I walked home along the beach quietly re-assuming my humble alter-ego: teacher, husband, and proud resident of Haeundae, Busan, Korea, Earth.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Asia Fail

*This piece may have appeared on the web once or twice before, but we’re publishing it again here because we likes it, yes we do.

by Mr. Motgol

In the Old World, people went to the New World to start anew. Once America became settled, folks would head “out West” to shake away their demons, with destinations such as California and Alaska luring folks with promises of riches and rebirth. These were places where no one cared about your history or imperfect past. You were given a clean slate, and only as good as your current effort.

These days, such second chances are harder to come by. Technology and computer data bases have made it much more difficult to shake the specter of previous fuckups. I am told that back home, many shitty, wage-slave jobs now require credit checks, for God’s sake. Big Brother has indeed taken over, which leaves only one choice for the Spectacular Failures of the Western World: Asia.

I was a big fat loser in America. I admit it. There’s really no other way to spin the story. I aimed high and fell lower. Mea culpa.

I came to Korea because pretty much no one else would have me. I was bruised and bleeding–the textbook portrait of a failure–but Korea didn’t seem to care. Her permed hair’d visage looked upon me with kind brown eyes and during my darkest hour, picked me up with her calloused, ajumma hands, and embraced me.

Since arriving on her rocky shores those many years back, I’ve flourished, and despite her many, prickly imperfections, I’m happy to call Asia home. I am grateful every day for the second chance afforded me here, and despite a few major hiccups along the way, I try my best not to screw it up.

However… some of my fellow expats have it the other way around. They come to  Asia, and THEN implode. Whether they blow all their cash, burn their bridges, or just piss the wrong people off, I’ve seen more than my share of expats unravel here. With their tail quivering between their legs they grab what they can, stuff it into their bags, and crawl onto that first plane home. The rest of us shake our heads and wonder how can this happen in Asia, where–at least for us pampered, spoon-fed Westerners–things are just so damned easy.  How is it possible to ASS OUT in a land where Westerners are generally given a berth fit for a cruise ship?

This phenomenon has come to be known as The Asia FailHere’s a list of the main types, in no particular order:

1. THE ALCOHOL FAIL 

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East Asia–with Korea stumbling along at the head of the drunken pack– is a boozehound’s paradise. You can get hammered around the clock for pennies on the dollar. Many countries have NO LAST CALL at the bars. You can booze all night, show up to work bleary-eyed and  reeking of drink, and your boss will congratulate you.

If your friend is already an alcoholic and says he’s moving to Asia, don’t let him. There’s simply just too much product on hand. After all, would you let your cokehead buddy go work in the rebel-held jungles of Colombia?

A friend of mine was such an alkie that he couldn’t even hold down a job in Korea, where a huge drinking habit is almost a hiring requirement. It is so ingrained in the culture that companies often make pissup sessions mandatory for employees. He carried around soju in a water bottle and would puke every time he went up stairs. For the greater part of a year he lived in a bar.  Yes, such a thing is possible in Asia.

When things got bad enough we finally passed the hat, contacted his family, bought his ticket and practically pushed him onto the plane. He’s lucky, because I’ve known of a couple other guys who have died from liver failure here. And they were both kindergarten teachers.

Before attempting a move home from here, writer Ross Gardiner summed it perfectly: “I’m the only person in history who is moving back to Scotland to AVOID being an alcoholic.”

2. THE IRATE WOMAN FAIL

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is a pretty good maxim to live by. Add Asian to the equation and this “fury” has the potential to morph into a Category 5 Typhoon.

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The warning signs are usually there: Ripped up photos of ex-girlfiends, rivers of threatening text messages, smashed furniture, slaughtered pets…

One friend of mine was smart enough to take his Korean wife–who had serious anger management issues–back to Canada before things got bad here. How do I know? One day I saw him at work, with a seven inch scabby gash on his face.

“What happened?” I asked.

“My wife scratched me,” he replied, as if it was an every day occurrence, like walking the dog or laundry.

“Really?”

“Yeah…. she got drunk and scratched me.”  He continued drinking his coffee and making fantasy football trades on his computer.

“Any particular reason?”

“Nah, not really.”

Another guy I know was deported after his notoriously unbalanced ex-girlfriend ratted him out to immigration for some illegal tutoring he was doing. That’s right, she called the teaching cops him. And sure enough, when he showed up to the lesson, two immigration officials were there, lying in wait. They grabbed him and that was that.  He’s since moved on to greener pastures, but let the lesson be learned.

3. THE DRUG BUST FAIL

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No country in Asia takes either possession of distribution of any substance deemed illegal lightly. Your arguments for decriminalization may hold sway ears in Canada, America, or Europe, but Asians generally have no time for such things.  All drugs are thought bad and that’s that. Get caught and pay the price. Like the strength of currencies in this region, this “price” varies greatly from country to country. Get busted smuggling hash in Japan or Korea and you WILL do time in a spartan prison, but you’ll likely count the years on one hand and you’re unlikely to be brutalized or raped. Do the same in Thailand or the Philippines and you may just spend a decade or two living in your own shit and fending off knife attacks from transvestites in prisons not fit for animals. Try it in Malaysia or Singapore and you may not even spend too long in prison before you find a rope around your neck.

Every year or so there’s a drug bust among the expats in Korea, which I don’t understand. I mean, do you guys really need your weed THAT much? Go home and move to Seattle or Denver and smoke away, though you may have to go back to work at Walmart or the valet parking lot you toiled away at before moving here.

There are so many books written about Thai prisons that they practically have their own aisle the the few remaining books stores left on earth. Warren Fellow’s “The Damage Done” is particularly horrifying.

For a clear and sympathetic account of serving time in a Korea prison for drugs, try “Brother One Cell”. He’s proven that the Asia Fail can go the other way around: It can sometimes actually provide opportunities for you back at home. I’ve often thought of purposely getting arrested for drugs in Asia, and serving my time solely in hopes of landing a big book deal. Expat prison memoirs are hot hot hot.

4. THE HATER FAIL

This one usually manifests itself as the midnight runner (suddenly leaving without notice).  Many would argue that this doesn’t qualify as an Asia Fail because by leaving the country with no notice, you are taking matters into your own hands. Fair enough, but to get to the point where you are willing to grab your shit and ditch out on your job without so much a phone call implies a basic lack of preparation for the bumps and knocks of life in Asia.

But even more fail-ific are the people who move to Asia, hate it with their very skin, yet insist on sticking around, grinding it out, and making it awful for the rest of us. There’s currently one sad sack on Facebook who teaches up ino Seoul and shrieks about it every day. His entire posting catalog is a road map of ESL misery. He moans and whines and talks about how is life here is a “living hell”; he talks of how the school he works at could be destroyed by a bomb with everyone–staff and children include–killed and how he wouldn’t. even.  care. (sic)  In desperation for a online hug, he splays his painful, bleeding vagina for all to see; he longs to return to the loving womb of America, but refuses to take that one clear step to accomplish the goal: Actually leaving.

Isn’t such perpetuation of easily-cured pain a kind of fail in itself?

Things are different here. There are cultural barriers that sometimes suck, yes, and in an effort to maintain social harmony, many bosses do have a–how do you say–elastic relationship with the truth.  And the men spit in elevators and the old ladies elbow you in the subway and just maybe they all do hate us.

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And did I mention how expensive cheese is here? Can you believe it? Oh noes. The horror.

5. THE TRYING TO BE FUNNY BUT ONLY ENRAGING THE LOCALS FAIL

This one occurs when cultural insensitivity meets misinterpretation, and one that I was guilty of in 2006. I was arrested and questioned over my role in Babopalooza, an expat sketch-comedy show I helped write and produce. The show made fun of both Westerners and Koreans and nearly got everyone involved deported. One of the sketched lampooned the Korean Immigration Service, which was an idiotic thing to do, since 1: The ridiculing of authorities is frowned-upon in Confucian Korea, and  2. The people we were skewering were also the people who have all the power over our lives: They interpret and enforce the rules that let us stay in the country. Don’t bite the hand that issues the visa.  We eventually got off with a firm “talking to” by the actual police, but “Wonderful Busan, Beautiful Immigration” continued to make our lives hell for years later, every time any of us switched jobs.

There are other examples aside from Babopalooza, most notably Michael Breen’s Samsung Christmas satire, and the forever-instructive “Fancy a bum?” incident, which whipped up the Korean netizens into such an angry, pitchfork and torch mob, that the offending dude (a Busan resident) was literally run out of the country.

6. THE PARANOIA FAIL

No, this isn’t the west, and some of the governments in Asia are downright nasty. This is especially true for the communist ones, who don’t really bother with such pesky things as free speech, habeus corpus, and a right to a fair trial. They’ve also been known to harass and spy on undesirable foreign elements from time to time.

However, most expats–especially lowly English teachers–are barely on their radar and to think otherwise is to only flatter yourself.  That doesn’t stop some folks from convincing themselves that the Secret Police are out to get ‘em, however. A friend of mine was recently living in a Southeast Asian country and posted a sort of real time Facebook meltdown. He claimed he was being watched and followed every step of the way; he told of having his apartment broken into and his computer hacked and tracked. He ended up bolting the country with no cash and barely getting out, subsequently relying on friends chipping in on PayPal to buy his ticket back home.

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Who knows? Maybe he was being followed. Though, having been a dabbler myself years back, I suspect overindulgence in certain substances played a much greater role in pushing him over the precipice than any spooks or security apparatchiks. And is it any coincidence that that this sort of neurosis usually occurs in countries where such substances are widespread and easily obtained? After all, nothing makes gangs of government agents put cameras in your refrigerator like a three-week yabba binge.

7. THE SHITTY TEACHER FAIL

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Let’s face it: Teaching English in Asia is a piece of piss. Could there be anything easier than just talking to people in your native tongue and getting paid for it? Sure, you need a “four-year degree”, and that does succeed in weeding out some of the mouthbreathers, but knuckleheads still abound. Anyone who thinks that a college education alone somehow equals intelligence hasn’t surveyed the Asian ESL crowd.

But let’s face it: Teaching English isn’t for everyone. To do it well in Asia requires a modicum of charm and basic social skills, or at least the ability to shuck and jive and entertain the troops. And if the troops aren’t entertained, they’ll complain, and your ass will be shown the door.

Some folks just aren’t cut out for this gig, yet bounce around from job to job to job, never quite taking the hint that, somewhere along the way, they’ve made a serious vocational error. But the truth is, if you are over thirty and teaching in Asia, you’ve ALREADY made a serious vocational error.

8. THE TEACHING IN KOREA AND THEN GETTING CAUGHT HAVING SEX WITH CHILDREN IN THAILAND FAIL

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This is the worst one, because not only is it morally reprehensible: It just makes living and working here all the more difficult for the rest of us.

Thanks, Swirly Faced Man.