Saturday, September 14, 2013

Some First Impressions

I made the mistake of not articulating many of my early impressions about South Korea. This time I want to make it right. If I wait too long these strange quirks begin to fade into normalcy. In no particular order, here are some observations I have made upon arriving in Vietnam. I am sure I will have more.

  • There are cards in the street. Most often, I'll see a joker card just lying in the street all alone. I think once I saw an ace of spades as well. That card, you might know, has some history in Vietnam. The U.S. Army used to drop the ace of spades from planes as part of a psi-ops campaign to demoralize the Vietnamese. They believed the Vietnamese thought they were bad luck, but there isn't much evidence to support that. Regardless, it was good for American morale. It's more likely that American troops saw the cards on the ground and thought they were discarded for being bad luck when instead they were thrown out because they were unnecessary in the games they were playing. Such is the case with the cards littering the ground today.

  • Koreans are beautiful. This is my fourth Asian nation and Koreans beat them all so far. Part of the reason is that people try really hard in Korea. For better or worse, in Seoul there is a high standard for beauty.

  • There is a smaller replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City. I'm not sure why, but then again, there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. 

  • Crossing the street is insane at first glance. Traffic almost never stops. You have to just go for it. Take a step into the road and stare down the oncoming traffic. They will go around you as long as you move at a slow but steady pace. Don't try to pass in front of buses or taxis as they do not slow down.

  • Work and play are mixed here. This was the case in Korea as well, but here it is to a much greater extent. Most people live in their places of business, or they work from home depending on how you choose to look at it. The line is blurry. Business hours are hazy. Shop owners will sleep on the job until their dog barks to wake them up. Families will sit down for dinner at their own restaurant which is just in front of their beds. An apartment will double as an elastic band wholesale dealer. People work long hours with breaks interspersed throughout the day. The afternoon siesta is still practiced here. It's my feeling that this lifestyle is more traditional and perhaps a bit healthier in some ways. Families are together more hours of the day. Work seems less like work.

  • Food is cheap and delicious. In my old alleyway I could find a meal for under a dollar and this is not all that uncommon. Still, I usually spring for something nicer and pay a little under two dollars. Food is delicious. Unlike Korea where everything is spicy, here all the spices are on the side and I can add them to my liking. Food seems to be greener and hopefully healthier too. I haven't gotten sick yet, but I know that's coming. There's a lot of strange food here and I've only really scratched the surface. Many times I only have a vague idea as to what I might be eating. I'm told some food can be dangerous too. Others have told me antifreeze might be mixed in some cocktails and the iced coffee isn't always exactly iced coffee.
Cơm tấm, or broken rice. Often comes with pork. Delicious.
The staff had a heyday. This guy was about to be food.

  • People love America here. The American flag is a fashion symbol. I see it on face masks, throw pillows, blankets, t-shirts, etc. A security guard proudly told me about his friend who served in the war on the American side. In Saigon, by and large there does not seem to be much of a grudge. I'm told this is not the case in Hanoi and that airport security is a huge hassle should I choose to fly there.

  • I do get a lot of looks. In Korea, I did not get too many people staring at me. Here, I get stares all the time. Kids always want to say “Hello” and little girls giggle. Today I ate down an alleyway and I could tell I was the talk of the street.

  • Sometimes people aren't so nice. I feel like sometimes there are people that try to make fun of me for being an American. A group of guys at a coffee shop called me over and started joking about “America”, “apple pie”, and so on. It could be chalked up to poor language skills, but I feel like if I started shouting random stereotypes at a Frenchmen people would think I was being rude. It's hard sometimes to tell who is laughing with you and who is laughing at you.

  • Those conical Vietnamese hats (nón lá) are worn without any irony. Unlike the Korean hanbok, they are not something worn traditionally or to be patriotic or only at festivals. They are just worn. It is as if the Dutch all still wore wooden shoes. Still, with the high heat and frequent and intermittent rain, it makes good sense to wear one.

  • Communist symbolism is all over the place. Ho Chi Minh's picture is everywhere. There is a common one of him reading a book that I rather like.
    Street where I did some apartment hunting. One of the guys living
    there said they should probably get a flag so they match the neighbors.

    • Rock, Paper, Scissors is not such a big deal here. It was huge in Korea, but here it seems so far to be at the same level of interest that it is in America.

    • The language is really difficult. There are six tones. People that have been here for years still struggle immensely. At least it uses the alphabet and not characters like Chinese. We had a series of interviews last Saturday to find Vietnamese tutors. At least I have some contact info for when I am ready to get a tutor. If interested, apply here.

    • I walk a lot more here. Every day, whether or not it is my intention, I get lost. I walk block after block and try to find patterns and places to revisit. Today I found a copy shop that will be useful for school. Copyright doesn't really exist here, nor do English book stores.

    • It rains almost every day. It is just like Forrest Gump or CCR. I was surprised by how cool the air usually is, but it is expected to get very hot and dry in a few months. If it's anything like Cambodia, I'm not exactly looking forward to it.

    • Koreans made you pay for almost any bags you used at the grocery store. Vietnam is more in line with America and gives them away for free. I still cringe when the clerk gives me a bag I really don't need.

    • Apple logos are everywhere here, even more so than in Korea and China. I'm not sure what the deal is. I see old men wearing Apple logos on baseball caps that I doubt ever touched an Apple product. I still see Detroit Tigers hats as well. Same phenomenon, really.

    • This country likes Oreos. I bought a two pack and got a free Oreo pencil. I think I will do just fine here.

    International Transient

    My flight had been delayed on the runway in Beijing. The couple sitting next to me told me that happens a lot in China. Lisa and Finton, from America and Ireland respectively, lived and worked in Beijing but were on their way to Vietnam for a much needed vacation. They too had been EFL teachers, but now they work in media and journalism. It is good to see expats are able to carve a life out in Southeast Asia without teaching.

    My friend Gra (The First King of Muii-do) picked me up at the airport in Ho Chi Minh at around 12:30am. He had brought along another friend who was there to ride with my things by taxi while I was introduced to Saigon the proper way: by motorbike. I hopped on the back of his Yamaha Nuovo III and we flew off. It had been years since I had been on a motorbike and I had never gotten used to it. Now I was in a strange land on a strange bike riding down streets that were dark and mostly empty. Everything was a dirty gray-blue. On the bike ride to where I was staying I was told the plan had fallen through; at the last minute I was given a place to stay with another set of friends. It would only be temporary. On the 10th I would have to sign a lease or find a new place.

    We arrived at an alleyway that in the darkness looked like every other scummy alleyway next to closed-up shops. We unpacked my things and walked down to the apartment. Outside the door we talked about the situation for a while, about how this was a last minute switch and how before I know it I will be out and on my own but for the moment I can stay here. I'm not sure what else was said really, I was distracted by the rat the size of a Pringles can openly wandering around just behind my friends. They told me another one was behind me as well. As I have learned since, the rats of Saigon own the night.

    We stepped inside. A cockroach scurried away. I kept my shoes on. I was given the last empty room. It had no AC and the fan was broken, but I wasn't bothered. I was also introduced to the rooftop of our apartment, which overlooked the street below and the surrounding poverty. I began to wonder if this was a mistake.
    The view at night.
    My first few days were just for getting used to Vietnam. My Scottish friend showed me around our neighborhood, bought me some ice coffee, and got me a copy of my door keys. I was also able to get my laundry done at the photocopy/laundry shop just down from our alleyway.

    The view during the day.

    Our alleyway I found to be really warm. Families open up little food carts and sell meals to each other. I've yet to pay more than a dollar for anything in that alleyway and it's all been delicious. Of course, as the only foreigners in the area we do not go unnoticed. My first time visiting the apartment after my friends had moved out I didn't know exactly which door was mine yet, but luckily the neighborhood women knew exactly which door it was and pointed me in the right direction. A day or two later we had a meal together outside my place. I went to sit down on a tiny plastic stool only to have it snap below me. The entire street was watching. We all laughed. After that I refused to sit in another one and another food table let me borrow their metal stools.

    My first weekend in Vietnam turned out to be a holiday. Gra, who had just secured a job as a financial adviser, had Friday off and drove me out to his place in the suburbs, District 7. It was nice to get out of the city. He feels if he didn't live outside of the city he would never leave the city, and living out here forces him to take time to relax. Together with other foreigners he rents a large house, almost a miniature mansion in some regards. There's a large spiked gate, a big-screen TV in the living room, a dining room, a spiral staircase, several large bedrooms, and a splendid rooftop balcony area. On the balcony is a pool table and a fish pond. But all that glitters is not gold: I'm told the landlord is kind of awful, there's a bat that lives above the pool table, the TV doesn't work, and overall it is not in the best shape considering the house is maybe only five years old. Still, what a relaxing and long weekend it was sitting upstairs, listening to music, playing pool, getting rained in, and having no commitments and nowhere to be.

    But we did leave sometimes. I traveled to the expat area of District 7, Phu My Hung, which oddly enough is mostly Korean. Weekends in Vietnam seem to pass over drinks. It usually starts with jasmine tea. Almost every restaurant offers jasmine tea (trà nhài) complimentary and many obsessively refill it regardless of how long it's been since you've bought anything. I suppose when it's as hot as it is here one can never be too careful. Next we might move on to a fruit smoothie or more likely some iced coffee. Vietnamese like it with condensed milk, which makes it extra sugary. Most expats seem to like it black, but I'm more of a milk guy anyway so I like the sugary stuff. And of course, the day ends with beers. Beer can be had almost anywhere for the equivalent of about fifty cents, but at bars and restaurants they often charge a whole dollar. Of course, on the expat street of Bui Vien things tend to cost slightly more and as an added bonus you constantly get asked to buy hand-made bracelets and photocopied novels. And so the weekend went: sitting, drinking, discussing, staying out of the sun or rain, and wondering what I was doing.

    When I arrived back in the city, I set to work on getting my resume updated and ready to send out to the schools. I was given a few job leads from friends. Everyone told me with my teaching certificate and English Major I was set for anything. I decided to be picky. I wanted to teach high school. I wanted to teach Science or English. Sure, I had a few interviews with primary school jobs, but pay doesn't matter if you don't really want to do it. One was with interactive white boards. Steven, the Englishman who interviewed me, was forthright enough to acknowledge that I was way overqualified and instead we talked about life in Vietnam and the quirks of the language. Turns out he used to live just down the road from my place. And in Vietnamese, it is better to learn to say phrases than words. It's a tonal language and words can easily be mispronounced. For instance, if you ask for “sugar” in just the wrong tone, you will ask for “penis” instead. I just may be in over my head here.

    But I was also interviewed by a couple “International schools,” one for primary and one for secondary. Steven had told me there are true international schools like British International School and Australia International School, and then there are a hive of copycats with slightly altered names. A good sign you are at a real international school are international students. Many of them only have international teachers. And then there are institutes, not schools, that have international in the title. These are mostly after-school supplemental learning places, once again, without a single foreign student. The first school I was interviewed by was a primary school. The principal was American and seemed on the level. He wanted an English teacher to teach EFL Science and English. Would have been a good fit, beautiful schoolgrounds, but it was outside the city, didn't pay well and wasn't at the secondary level.

    I was recommended another school as well, one that taught using an American curriculum on top of the required Vietnamese curriculum. Looking at their website, most of their teachers either have a Masters or P.h.D. Many of their students reportedly go abroad to America to study after high school. Their application was nine pages long, so they didn't get a lot of applicants. It was quite impressive and covered everything. By the time I attached my resume I felt it was almost completely redundant. Within fifteen minutes of sending the application I got a response asking for an interview. I was stunned, and a little disappointed. Did they even read my nine page masterpiece?

    Even so, I went in for the interview. The school was not located in an expat area, which means it probably didn't have foreign students, but that was okay with me. After all, I liked living in areas that weren't so used to foreigners. The interviewer was friendly and eager. I think within ten minutes I was offered a job as a Language Arts teacher, not EFL. No questions were asked about teaching practices or philosophy (these things were covered on the application). The pay he offered was much lower than expected, but he did offer free housing. I saw the housing. It was okay, more spacious than Korea but definitely not as posh. I left thinking I would take the job, but disappointed that it was not everything I had hoped for. The interview was a little insulting in that it made me wonder how much he cared about my credentials. He didn't seem to know much about the academic side of things, so he wasn't helpful in answering my questions about the curriculum or any other teaching questions. The pay wasn't even as good as the primary school job, and far lower than most expats with only a TEFL degree can make in this country.

    I wandered the community after the interview, mulling over my thoughts and texting people for advice. I was quickly talked out of my excitement and started second guessing whether or not I would accept. There were some nasty things written about the school on the internet. I had lunch, and then texted the interviewer saying I would like to speak with some teachers at the school. He agreed and I returned to the school, this time not well-dressed but instead in shorts and my “Reservoir Dogs” t-shirt. The teachers were friendly, smart, and motivated. One was a young Sri Lankan-Canadian economics major or something who had been there more than a year now. The other was an older Social Studies teacher from North Carolina who had started over the summer. Both seemed really content. I asked them about their challenges. They said most of the struggles came from bureaucracy. Students were wonderful. I asked them about the high turnover rate. They said some people just want other things. I asked them about the pay. They were unaware you could make more. I think they were recruited from abroad and had never bothered looking elsewhere for work. Is that a good sign? The North Carolinan had been in Kuwait the previous year and hated it, even if he was being paid more than double what he is now. That made me feel better. Him and I, we could relate. Quality of life is far more important than money.

    Next, to my surprise I was ushered into the principal's office. He introduced himself as John and we proceeded to just shoot the shit. We didn't talk about my role at the school at all, just life in Vietnam and the corrupt government.

    I sat on the decision a while and then late Friday night I emailed my interviewer telling him what I felt: I liked the school, I wanted to teach Language Arts, but that I was unsatisfied with the pay. I said that I could get much more at many other schools. I stared at the message for a long time. Never had I ever complained to the person I wanted to hire me about how much I was being paid. It seemed like a risk, but it felt like a necessary one. I would hate working there from the beginning if I was being insulted monthly by my paycheck. I hit send.

    Another weekend passed at the miniature mansion. Pool. Beer. Music. Rainstorms. Sleeping on the couch. An engagement party. Jasmine tea. Iced coffee. Iced coffee again. Beer. I spoke to my friends about the pace of life in Vietnam. Everything seemed slower and more casual. Just sitting and drinking something, either keeping out of the sun or the rain. They told me that I was just jobless.

    Monday I went to an interview in the morning. A primary school job, another waste of time. I looked at my phone. The zoo was on the way to my 4 o'clock appointment. I had a motorbike driver, or xe om (Steven told me it literally translates to “moto-hug”), drive me there instead.

    Two moon bears
    I wandered the small zoo, seeing what I could. I learned quickly there are an inordinate number of pheasants and/or pheasant-like birds in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Now that I think of it, the pheasants in America actually come from China. I got to see the moon bears and the lonely sun bear. Both are strange. You probably know the sun bear from a meme. The moon bear is important in Chinese medicine for its stomach bile. They are farmed in cruel ways. I won't go into detail.

    Of course, it rained hard. Some Vietnamese high school kids were playing a group song game under the pavilion. They sang and laughed and made their own fun. I was jealous of their ability to do that. I believe it a lost art in America to make your own fun with songs and games. From what I have seen of the Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese so far, they are all capable. Why not us? And why weren't these kids in school? There is so much I have yet to learn about this place.

    I went to my last interview and it was the most thorough. I liked him. I felt almost unprepared for questions I received, but it went well. Part-time with students of all ages, night time and secondary are possibilities. I told him I could do a few hours at night.

    I got home and received an email from the high school. They were willing to negotiate on my wages. I didn't get what I asked, but they met me in the middle. I told him I'd take it but I needed to read the contract first. Tomorrow is my last day in the temporary apartment. Tomorrow I leave for the high school's accommodations. Hopefully things work out and I don't have to turn down the contract. I'm excited to start at a teaching job that will utilize the skills I trained to use. It may even count towards further certification, but I haven't looked into it yet.
    The beef-wrapped cheese was delicious as well (left)

    Tonight I'm celebrating by spending my last night at the microbrewery near my place. Yep, there's a Belgian microbrewery near my slummy apartment. They sell 1-liter mugs of black lager or Hefeweizen for about three dollars each. I've been sitting here tonight writing and enjoying the last time I'll be able to walk home from this. Almost done with two at this point. If my international transience has to end, it should end the way it was spent: with a good drink.

    POST-SCRIPT – On the way back to my apartment, I met a group of Vietnamese men on the side of the road drinking and eating at a series of tables. I gave them high-fives and they offered me a Tiger beer and a seat. I told them I was from America. Someone said “I love America!” I said I love Vietnam. They taught me how to toast in Vietnamese and began offering me food, starting with chicken feet. I had seen these on the street but had not yet gathered the courage to try them. The skin is rubbery and most of the meat or whatever it is I was eating was on the sole.

    Next they held up a bowl of dark brown meat. “Dog meat!” they shouted. Now, I'm not so opposed to eating dog, in theory. Different strokes for different folks, you know? But I am against the treatment of the dogs before they are killed. Once again, it has to do with Chinese medicine. Dogs are traditionally a summer food because they are considered “hot”, a great coincidence considering we refer to the hottest months as the “Dog Days.” Anyway, dog helps you beat the heat among other things. It is also believed that the meat tastes better if it is full of adrenaline. How do you fill it with adrenaline? Easy, just kill the dogs in the most horrific and brutal ways you can think of and let if suffer immensely before it dies. Boiling alive, for one. Now, this doesn't happen to all dogs but I've heard it's pretty common in the more old school places. So anyway, in principle I'm against dog meat. That night, in practice, not so much. They gave me the same line as usual that these are food dogs not pet dogs and that there's a difference. I had had a few, so I hammed up my disgust and we had good fun making light of the cultural gap here. And, after a lot of drama, I took a bite. They cheered. I ate a few pieces of dog. It had a smell that reminded me of homemade chicken somehow, but I can't really place it. The taste was bland, kind of dry and chewy. Not bad, not good either. I think there is far better meat to be had without the ethical crisis.

    The beers kept coming and so did the food. Next I tried a piece of lower chicken leg. Like the foot, not really worth it, just rubber. After that, they passed me a bowl and said “Have you ever had this?!” I told them yes, that I had eaten oysters before. But there was one more food challenge they told me I had to try that night. Duck egg. Just as they described it, it so happened the lady on our street that sells them wheeled her cart by. We each were given one. Some only opened the top of the egg and scooped out the inside with their chop sticks. I was given a peeled one. Essentially, this hard-boiled egg was half-formed, with what looked to be the dark innards of a fetus offset by the gooey yoke. I was drunk and it was dark, so I knew I could do it. Still, I made a dramatic show of it, acting really distressed and disgusted. The egg white near the tip was chewy and crunchy, like eating an eraser with tiny nuts stuck inside. That was actually the worst part. The yoke was softer than usual, and actually not too bad. The fetus, despite looking like something coughed up during an exorcism, was actually similar in taste to the yoke. It was surprisingly soft, went down smoothly, and wasn't terrible. For the experience, I actually recommend trying this sort of duck egg, but maybe do it in the dark.

    It's a shame that I only met those men as I was leaving the neighborhood, because we got to be friends. A few added me on Facebook that night. Thuan who sat next to me was a construction worker with fine English. He spoke to me the most. Vo had to head home early because his wife would get upset. An sat across from me and told me he was “Forever Alone.” I laughed pretty hard. I love when I see memes in other countries. An kept challenging me to drink, and like a true IRL troll, he would then take his time with his glass.

    Towards the end of the night we started singing songs to each other. Someone started on “Hotel California” which made me flash back to China. Was drinking with a bunch of strangers on the street really such a good idea? Bear in mind I had my laptop with me in my backpack the whole time. I decided this case was different but it gave me pause. We continued to sing. I did “Yellow Submarine” as always. They sang some Vietnamese songs that I liked. One was a war song I think. It made them all laugh but it was about tanks shooting I guess. They sang their national anthem. It had a beautiful sound. I tried to sing mine. I usually pride myself on my ability to remember all the words, but that night my memory failed me. The “Star Spangled Banner” is a song I love, but it's not much of a Song of the People. Few can remember all the words and far fewer can actually sing it well. An anthem should be less elitist.

    I went home happy at my new friends. I may have fallen asleep on the toilet.

    Wednesday, August 28, 2013

    My Trip to China

    The last thing I ate in Korea was a ham sandwich. I made one more call to my parents, and then I was off. Leaving Korea has been much like coming to Korea. I have often felt too rushed to understand the full meaning of my departure. There are too many people to see, too many to miss. I find myself wanting to encapsulate a country in a few words, to list off some lessons I can bring with me to Beijing, but I know those lessons will only reveal themselves further down the road. Finding significance is best left to those with time.

    Beijing from the sky was much more sprawling than I imagined. Not tight like Seoul. This I would find out later was part of a pattern. I look at China as the counterpoint to the United States. Both countries are large and powerful with lots of cultural and geographical diversity. Both countries are larger than life. But China is old, the United States is new, and their interests and political systems couldn't be more different.

    After I landed I met Sean from Switzerland on the subway, a nanotechnology student who had spent 6 months previously in Beijing. He helped with my bags. They were massive since I would be moving to Vietnam from Korea. I asked him for any tips on traveling the Beijing area. He told me to make sure I go to the Great Wall on a clear day. I thanked him and we parted.

    I arrived at Tienanmen East station exhausted from lugging my bags by myself through the busy subways. The subways seemed about two or three times busier than the ones in Seoul, and that's saying something. On the way out some ladies asked me where I was from and if I wanted to join them for coffee. I politely refused saying I had to make it to my hotel. After all, my Chinese teacher friend had warned me against people in Beijing trying to scam me. The stairs out of the subway were a nightmare, but a few older women helped me with my bags and soon I saw the clear blue sky in front of the Forbidden City. I snapped a picture of the fountain in front of the palace, and turned to get to my hotel where I could get some rest.

    I stopped to wipe off my sweat in front of a bus stop and was approached by two more Chinese people. They asked where I was from, and they told me they were brother and sister visiting from Shanghai. They had just seen the Forbidden City and were going to stop for a beer on their way back and I could call them Colin and Julia. Colin worked in IT. Maybe it was because they helped with my bags, maybe it was because they were tourists too, or maybe it was because they offered beer, but they seemed on the level. I agreed and we turned the corner towards my hotel and entered a small Chinese-style quiet bar.

    We had a few pitchers of some Chinese knock-off of Heineken and some green tea. Julia told me China is famous for its knock-offs and that she just bought a knock-off iPhone but that it was no good. Colin asked me about Korea and I had to correct myself and start using the past tense when I discussed my life there. That stung. I was working at a foreign language school. I was teaching brilliant high school students.

    After some more drinks Julia mentioned karaoke. We talked about how it is different in America than in Asia, but yes I would sing the Eagles with her. So we switched rooms, put some songs in and began to sing. Colin, who told me his Chinese name was “Baa-Baa” offered red wine or whiskey. Feeling adventurous, I chose whiskey. We sang “Hotel California”, “My Heart Will Go On”, “Barbie Girl”, “Beat It”, and other Asian karaoke staples. Julia was mostly tone-deaf, but I didn't mind and a few songs she really knew well. Shot after shot of whiskey I matched Baa-Baa, but I could tell this smallish Chinese man was definitely doing better than me. I complimented his tolerance and took another drink. Gambai! Scorchio! Cheers! Soon it was time to leave. With some help I paid half the bill and we walked out with my bags.

    My memory is hazy here, but I recall walking down the road towards the hotel. It was an ordeal. I was hot, sweaty, exhausted, and incredibly drunk. At some point, I am going to guess about halfway to the hotel, I collapsed and could not get up. I was either too tired or lacking in balance or both. I remember Baa-Baa yelling “Ben, brother! Get up! Brother! Get up!” I threw up on myself.

    I woke up in a hotel room from a dream about my high school teacher that ran the International Travel Club. I had no idea what had happened or even what country I was in. My memories soon came back and I panicked. I checked. Everything was there. All of my bags, my wallet, my credit cards, my passport, everything. I was still in my stained shirt, but my shorts were off. I looked at the time. It was 6. I was proud of myself. I had only slept an hour or two and my headache was mostly gone. I looked again. It was 6 am. I had slept through my entire first evening in Beijing up until the next morning. Despondent, I realized I had not booked my trip to the Great Wall. That was the one thing I absolutely had to do before I went to bed the day before. I thought that maybe if I got showered and dressed right away I could still go outside and find a company to book a tour with for that morning.

    I got out of the shower, put some clothes on and began reassembling what I needed for the day. At 7 the phone rang. I picked it up. “Hello Benjamin. I am calling to inform you that your tour bus for the Great Wall will pick you up at the corner in front of your hotel at 7:15. I will give you my number so reception can help you find your way.” I put down the phone to grab a pen and screamed and laughed in delight.

    I walked out of the hotel for what seemed like the first time, trying to piece together any memories at all of the night before. Nothing. I did, however, find I had a receipt for the tour in my pocket with my name neatly signed and printed at the bottom. I also found I had way more money in my wallet than I recalled.

    On the bus I met Vlad and Roxanna from Romania. I told them my story in wide-eyed astonishment. I asked the tour guide if we had spoken and it sounded like we hadn't, but someone had alerted her to the fact that I was quite tipsy and that she should give me a wake up call. We picked up a woman from Germany with a slight Australian accent who had been living in Singapore, and set off on our way.

    Wow! It seems like it goes on forever in either direction!
    The Great Wall was foggy. It was the old part of Badalang I was told, so there were very few people there. We couldn't see anything. I thought of Sean from Switzerland. Everyone complained and made sarcastic comments about the amazing view. I was still reeling at the fact that somehow Blackout Ben had gifted Hungover Ben with a second chance. I was just happy to be there. The wet, cool air was wonderful for my condition.

    We went to a jade shop. We went to the Ming tombs. We went to a pearl farm shop. I went back to the hotel. I asked the manager what happened last night. He told me my friends, a man and a woman, had brought me in two taxis (I assume tuk-tuks) because of my bags. The man had helped me into the room and into bed. I asked about the Great Wall tour but he denied selling me any ticket to the Great Wall.

    That night I wandered the streets of Beijing, seeing the parks and looking for something to do. I went to a traditional market meant for tourists really that reminded me of Insadong in Korea. There I bought an Oba-Mao shirt, with Obama cloaked in communist regalia. I'm not sure who the joke is on with that shirt, but I liked it. I wandered around the business district of Wangfujing and another night market where I almost bought myself some cicadas or scorpions on a stick. I decided I had nothing to prove, and headed home, got lost, found my way, had a PBR with some other foreigners outside the hotel, and went to bed.

    Only part of the line to see Mao.
    The next morning I repacked my bags and headed for Tienanmen Square. After a long security checkpoint, I was admitted. The Square is huge, the largest in the world. I wanted to kick myself for not knowing where the “Tank Man” photo was taken before going there. Seems like that would be almost like Abbey Road for foreigners visiting China. I took a photo of the line to Mao Zedong's tomb. I wasn't going to waste my last few hours in Beijing honoring a man like that, so I did a lap around the square, and got lost in the beautiful and peaceful garden next to the Forbidden City before eventually making my way inside through the west gate. I wandered around the outer part of the city looking for the Starbucks my father told me should be there. Instead I found a place that served Peking duck. Figuring this was my last chance to get it, I sat down and had a massive dinner all to myself. Delicious.

    On my way back towards the City a small Chinese woman stopped me to ask if I wanted a tour. Now, this wasn't the first time someone had asked me if I wanted a tour. In fact, it had been happening all day. It could have been that I was well-fed, that she didn't seem desperate, or that I was on a strict schedule, but I said yes. She asked for 60 yuan and walked off with my money to get me a ticket. Before long, she came back with my ticket and introduced herself as Maja. Maja gave an excellent tour. She told me all about the extravagance of the palace. One emperor had 27 beds so he could sleep in a different one each night in case someone tried to assassinate him in his sleep. There is house built specifically for the emperor's honeymoon bed and is only used once by each emperor. There was a lot of information about concubines and eunuchs. Concubines could give birth to the next emperor. And a eunuch would burn incense to limit the time each concubine had with the emperor at night. If a concubine bribed the eunuch she could have more time. Eunuchs became very wealthy. The Forbidden City for me was a great example of how absolute power and centralized wealth could really go too far.

    I talked with Maja for a bit at the end of tour about life in China and family stuff. I paid her, we parted, and I walked back to my hotel to pick up my bags and take a taxi to the airport. Overall, China has been a nice little stopover. I wanted to see a lot more of it, but at least now I can say I have been there. China puts Korea in perspective. China is Korea if it let itself go. Korea is very neat and new and fashion conscious. China doesn't care what it looks like. Most of the men keep their bellies out to keep cool. China has nothing to prove. They have dominated that part of the world for centuries. Sure, hard times have hit, but no one can deny their staying power.

    One last note on traveling. With the internet connection being spotty and my laptop packed deep in my bag, I was unable to check my bank account until I got to Vietnam. Colin and Julia debited my card for five transactions of 467,087 won, or about $2100 total. I was also charged about $500 dollars to my credit card, but I am fairly certain all of that was in my wallet minus what I spent on the trip to the Great Wall. That was really dumb. I'll use more caution in Vietnam.

    Thursday, August 1, 2013

    Feeling Small

    Yesterday I filmed my bike ride home from school. I thought people might like to see what my neighborhood looks like and how I get to and from work every day. It's a nice ride. I hope it's not too long or dull. If it is click on settings and you can actually increase the playback speed.

    On the bike ride home tonight I saw a little toddler running being chased in a crowd by his grandpa. He was giggling and running between the legs of all the people waiting at the crosswalk. It made me miss being that small. But why do I miss being small? It's so easy to get lost when you are small. I remember finding the feeling of being lost and away from everyone exhilarating. It was a horribly bad habit of mine to wander away at the store almost every time I went. It's easier to hide too. And when you're that small, the world looks bigger. Everything towers over you. I remember being bathed on the kitchen counter and looking out the window. I remember having to use a stool to wash my hands in the bathroom. And when you're small, the world is still new. Everything is exciting and you are learning everything for the first time. You cannot help but have a wide-eyed fascination with all that surrounds you.

    I wonder if traveling has something to do with being small. When I am truly lost and alone in Korea, it is exhilarating (luckily people tend not to kidnap 6-foot tall dudes). It's harder to hide today than it ever has been, but switching countries is a start. Living away gives me perspective. It lets me begin to see the world as a larger place again. I can begin to imagine all the houses and rivers and oceans and forests and people that are between me and those that I know and care about across the world. The world is a bigger place. And, the world is still new. In Korea, I am still learning many things for the first time and this will continue in Vietnam.

    Traveling has made me small again.

    Wednesday, July 31, 2013

    One month to go

         I've been holding off on writing for a while, mostly because I have been thinking a lot about what I want to do next. And, to make it brief and for reasons I don't really feel like getting into on the internet, I am leaving for Vietnam at the end of August. The plan is to have a detour in Beijing for a few days before heading to Saigon to look for a job. I have friends there and the opportunity sounds quite grand. I'm sure I will have more to say when I get there, so I don't want to say too much as of now.

         And seeing as I'm still in Korea, however, I'll talk about that for a few minutes before heading to bed. The last few months have been a whirlwind of teaching and travel. This year we have completely revamped the first grade class. Instead of boring TEPS listening comprehension practice, we have been doing a three-pronged approach of reading articles, watching videos, and presenting speeches on topics usually relevant and newsworthy.

    I may be missing a few, but here are most of the topics we have studied this year:

    1. Dennis Rodman visits North Korea
    2. A man that sells parcels of land on the moon
    3. "Sugar Man" Rodriguez, the unknown musician from Detroit that impacted a generation in South Africa
    4. Anonymous Hacks North Korea
    5. "Three Questions" by Leo Tolstoy
    6. 3-D printed gun invented and tested
    7. Excerpts from "Sum" by David Eagleman about the afterlife
    8. Women now allowed in combat in the U.S.
    9. Malala Youfsufzai fights for education for girls in Afghanistan
    10. Scientists create a bionic eye that allows blind to "see"

    The majority of these lessons began by watching a video one or two times and answering questions. After that, we typically read articles and

    Friday, May 31, 2013

    Over a year. And Namdong Tower.

    I have been in Korea for a year and ten days. This last month I have been thinking a lot about my last year. I don't have any wise things to say in my reflection, only that I have been here a year.

    Besides this, one of my good friends is leaving within the next month. I have been told that you eventually meet enough people in a place like this that leaving parties are a regular thing. I still haven't gotten there yet.

    These event have gotten me thinking a lot too about my next step. Where from here? Korea isn't my plan forever, but I don't have anything firm yet afterwards. Thailand to get a CELTA certification for more opportunities? I know some people that plan to do that, travel some, and then work in the Middle East, living on a complext and get paid well. Vietnam is another option. I've been told you can live like a king there for cheap, but the profit isn't as large as in Korea. I could try my hand at a international school, but those are extremely competitive from what I understand. I could head to California and travel up the coast, maybe get a teaching job somewhere out west. Or, of course, I could go home.

    The view from the wildlife bridge.
    I have been here a year. I'm signed up until at least August, and perhaps I will be here another year after that. I'm not sure. My friend is leaving. I biked home as usual today, but seeing as I had no plans, I decided to take a different route. Instead of heading between the church and library as usual, I took a left towards the wildlife bridge and climbed up and over the highway. I started taking turns here and there, meandering in the general direction of my apartment but always somewhat off the mark. I rode through the industrial sector, passing scrap yards and auto shops. I even passed a Salvation Army and an international market that most catered to Bangladeshi food.

    After getting myself adequately mixed up, I started heading towards Namdong Tower. I never knew what to make of it, but I knew I always meant to go there. My community is by no means an exciting place, and I always thought it was odd that we would have a sightseeing tower smack-dab in the middle of an industrial park, but, there it is.
    Namdong Tower

    Underneath the tower I discovered an indoor pool with cheap daily rates. It is connected to the tower by a hallway that appears to showcase all the different products that have been manufactured in Namdong throughout the years. At the end of the hallway sat an empty ticket desk. I took the elevator up. It's about 100m to the top I believe. A fancy restaurant is on the highest floor. The floor below it is an observation deck with labels showing what direction and how far you have to go in order to get to various cities around the world. I meandered around the observation deck until I noticed three or four tables pushed together having dinner.

    I decided I better wander back home. Like so many other things in the Incheon area, I believe Namdong Tower, with its empty ticket desk and observation deck being used as restaurant spillover (for a restaurant that was hardly full), must have begun as some sort of graft project or political promise. Incheon is bankrupt, and the lonely Namdong Tower stands as a testament to that.

    On my way home I met someone who has been living here for six months. We had never seen each other before. Occasionally it pays to occasionally take the long way home.

    Friday, March 22, 2013

    Eye Surgery and All About Life With and Without Glasses

         It has been almost four weeks since I had surgery on my eyes. My vision isn't what it was with glasses, but now it has to be either close to or at 20/20. I am happy, but my eyes are still sensitive. I have red lines running out from the edges. I am not used to this. I think they showed up when I caught the cold and I imagine they will go away once I get better. My recovery from here on out should be slow. I still am not allowed to itch my eyes. I have another appointment in a couple weeks to check up on my progress. I cannot drink until then. I don't want to chance an infection, or worse.

         I also have to wear sunglasses for another two or three months. The sunglasses are not a bother, really. In fact, I was excited to wear them. For years sunglasses have been barred from my face with the exception of transition lenses and those weird clip on ones. For the first time in years, I can wear real sunglasses, the type people wear simply to look cool or because it is sunny out.

         I bought aviators. I wear them at all times in natural light, even at dusk. People must think I look pretentious but I guess I don't care really. I have a reason to wear them and even if I didn't I still want to make up for a lot of lost time.

         I have had glasses since I was in first grade. Mrs. Kelly, my computer teacher, noticed me squinting at the white board in the back row. Back then, this was the only white board in the entire school. She told me I needed glasses and moved me to the front of the room until I got them. I was surprised at the time. To me, I suppose the change was so slow that I did not notice the difference. When I did get glasses, the change was so dramatic I am struggling to come up with a way to describe it that isn't cliché. It was like night and day. It really was like seeing the world again for the first time. (See, please tell if you can think of a better description.)

         There are a lot of things I liked about glasses. For one, my brothers all had glasses for a time (only one has them now). I could be just like them. Glasses identified me as a nerd, which I always liked because it was true. People look smarter in glasses and I liked looking smart and I liked looking geeky. I liked my eye doctor. He was fun to talk to and glasses meant seeing him a bit more often. I liked that my eyes were always protected against those just-in-case moments when you don't think to have safety goggles but end up needing them. I liked how my transition lenses changed in the sunlight. I liked how I looked with glasses because I felt that I looked older without them, that I had bags under my eyes that were semi-concealed by my frames.

         I didn't like how glasses felt on my nose. They always left those little red marks. I didn't like that I had to put them on every morning, clean them, and take them off every night. I hated when I would sleep in them and lose them in the morning. If they were knocked off I would have to reshape them so they were not crooked. Glasses almost ruin Halloween. Not only do they cut down on the number of characters you can realistically be, but almost no one looks scary or heroic in glasses. I guess I could be Egon from Ghostbusters or Waldo. Last Halloween, I had considered going as Weird Al but Korea got in the way.

         One of my brothers got eye surgery and he loves it. One of my first concerns was a sort of identity crisis. I had worn glasses so long that they were a part of my identity. People back home and even in Korea had called me Professor. Call me egotistical, but I kind of liked the image. I liked being a nerd and I liked advertising that too. Without glasses, people might have to talk to me to decide who I am. It made me a little uneasy. My brother told me to hell with that, that glasses aren't you. I took his word for it and plunged in.

         I originally planned to do LASIK just like he did because of the quick recovery time and the more advanced procedure. My teacher friend Helen told me to go to Hangil Hospital. They are the top eye hospital in the country. I took her word for it too. LASIK would cost 1.9 million won, or about $1,750.

         Helen was a wonderful help. She brought me in for my initial screening as well as for my surgery. She helped translate for the hospital too. I was incredibly nervous, especially after watching one of the operations on the TV screen. However, after watching a few more I did not worry.

    My last photo wearing glasses.

         After a couple rounds of eye drops I pulled over a hospital gown and was ushered into the surgery room. The doctor had me lay down on the LASIK machine. Some hooks were put into my eyelids to hold my eyes open (I still flinch writing this part). A conical suction device was slowly lowered onto my right eye. As it lowered, the machine said “Down” in English. This was confusing because I wasn't sure if it was instructing me or just describing its own motion. After moving the device around my eye for several minutes they turned on the suction and my eye was sucked into position, and with a wince of pain shortly released. They tried again. I heard murmuring in Korean. Then I heard Helen speak. Soon the doctor was pressing his finger to my nose. My nose! My nose was hitting the wide base of the cone-shaped suction machine! The doctor held my nose hard to the left while the machine came down on my right eye. It was no use. The machine said “Up.” There was some more talking. Then I was asked to get up. I already knew what they were going to tell me: I would be the first person in history to be denied eye surgery because my nose was too big. Their version was less blunt and perhaps a bit defensive: my nose was too high on my face, which is strange because it is a German machine, but it might have such a wide base because the technology is state-of-the-art and not yet miniaturized. So state-of-the-art, they said, that this is the only one in Korea and America only has two. Still, the awesomeness of their machine didn't matter if I couldn't use it.

         Instead they had me lay down on the LASEK machine. It fit me fine so I was led back out into the lobby and given another packet of information to read and sign. I was told I could get LASEK today instead. Having already done the research, I agreed. LASEK was supposed to mean more pain and irritation, but in the long run most likely more resilient eyes. It was also 600,000 won cheaper, so in the end the entire procedure only cost 1.3 million won or about $1,200.

         After signing the papers I was given another dose of eye drops and sent back in. Fortunately, this machine didn't require little metal hooks on my eye lids or a suction cup. I'm not sure what it required but it didn't seem as bad. Looking back, I still hated the operation, but at the time I kept telling myself I just extremely disliked it. Fingers and pointed sticks and needly things kept flashing in front of my eyes while they were doused with various fluids. A dish of cold alcohol was used to dissolve the outer layer of cornea. The whole thing made me nervous. I tried to focus on not twitching my toes, breathing regularly, and always staring at the green light as the doctor said. This was especially important when the laser came on. Actually, the laser was the most pleasant part of the experience. When the laser was on, nobody was poking around. It was just a bright, warm light for a second or two. In my first eye I did smell a slight singe, but the brochure says the laser doesn't burn so something doesn't add up.

         The whole operation took under fifteen minutes I would imagine. Sure, I extremely disliked it, but it was not unbearable and keep in mind I am a wimp when it comes to the thought of anything being done to my eyes. I got up and immediately I could see an improvement. My vision wasn't great, but it was improved. The doctor did a quick check and said I would be just fine. As I started to put on my shoes he commented on my Obama socks. Maybe I wore them because I needed to do laundry or maybe I thought wearing strange socks would bring me good luck, but he told me that in Korean culture wearing a man's face on your socks is disrespectful to the man.

         I ended up getting the subway back and hanging out with a coworker while he arranged his new apartment. It helped me keep my mind off my eyes. They weren't in serious pain, just slightly irritated. More than anything I was on edge from the surgery. It took me a long time to unwind and relax.

         That night and for the next week I had to wear protective covers over my eyes. The next morning I was told it was very important to open my eyes slowly so that I wouldn't damage them. I still have no idea how to arrange it in my head so that I remember to do that upon waking up. Do I fall asleep imagining myself opening my eyes slowly?

         The second day wasn't bad, only minor irritation, but the third day was, and I think it was all because I opened them quickly. They were red, they stung, and my vision would double then get blurry and, especially at night, starry. Fortunately it was mostly uphill from there. Some days were better than others, but the doctor told me healing would be gradual and uneven. After maybe a week and a half I finally felt satisfied with where my eyes were.

         It has been a little surreal without glasses. Since the new school year was beginning the following week, I decided for maximum effect I should shave my beard as well. The reactions from students were incredible. I think every day for the first week I would walk into the lunch room and a new group of girls would scream in surprise. I have never garnered that kind of reaction from anybody before. For at least ten seconds a day I felt a little bit like Paul McCartney. One student told a teacher that she could hardly bear to look at me because I had become so handsome. This kind of freaked me out, but then I remembered how fond Koreans are of superlatives and exaggerated reactions. When I first came to the school almost everything I said garnered a gasp of awe. Not so much anymore. This too shall pass.
    With a little help, it shall pass sooner rather than later.
         I am still not entirely used to life without glasses. Often before going to bed I still wonder where my glasses are so that I can put them on to take them off before going to bed. I still wear sunglasses at all times in daylight so when I leave the house at night I feel especially naked without glasses of any kind. I subconsciously want to grab for my glasses at times when my vision isn't so great. For a while I was even wearing some lens-less toy glasses to trick my mind into focusing at work. But, most times, I am able to forget I ever had them. I can try to live life normally, but in a new way. If I need glasses again someday, so be it, but for right now I want to experience the kind of vision many take for granted.