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9 Sep

Miscellaneous ramblings, no. 1: der Anfang – That’s right, no clever title today (note: lame attempt at clever title added at a future date). I’m calling it like it is, because today’s entry has no single, unifying theme. I suppose it may have a bunch of minor themes, but we’ll see how that goes. I just figured it was time to stop thinking about writing an entry and actually write an entry, and if that entry turns out to be one long babble, so be it. I’m just going to write and post. I mean, if David can get away with it, why can’t I?

“For Sartre, hell was other people. For me, hell is other drivers.”

So I’m on my way back from the health club this morning. Actually, I was just pulling out of the apartment complex where the health club is located (in Korea, apartments spring up in little “villages,” and these villages usually have one commercial building with restaurants, video rental places, supermarkets, etc.). I have to make a left out of the complex to get back home, and when I got my green arrow I pulled out. To my surprise, a car coming from the right showed not even the slightest intention of slowing down and sailed right through the red light—and right into my path.

At that point life switched to slow motion. I yanked the wheel to the left to avoid smashing into him, and as he passed less than a meter in front of me, he turned to look at me. As soon as I saw his face, I realized that somehow he felt I was in the wrong. How he could have thought that when he was the one who ran the red light is beyond my meager powers of comprehension. The kicker of it all was that he wasn’t racing to get through the light (which is fortunate, since that would have certainly meant an accident). He just cruised through it like it wasn’t even there.

This is not uncommon in Korea, of course, where a large portion of the population, especially in and around Seoul, drives like rabid goats. Anyone who’s ever seen a rabid goat drive will know exactly what I’m talking about. Forget common courtesy (which, to be honest, isn’t really all that common no matter where you go)—even traffic laws are up for debate. Take red lights, for example. Apparently many Koreans feel that red lights aren’t really laws, they’re just suggestions: “You might want to stop here, but if there’s no one coming—or even if there is but you think you can get through—by all means go ahead.” I guess I missed that part in the Korean driver’s manual.

After my wife and I witnessed a red light violation one time, I told her about my experiences in London (I was there for six months to study during university). I walked around quite a bit, and one thing that impressed me was the blinking lights they have set up on some of the less trafficked streets. These blinking lights are installed at crosswalks, and apparently motorists are required to stop if there are pedestrians waiting to cross the road. Coming from New York, where pedestrians and motorists play live-action Frogger daily, I was stunned. Then I moved to Korea, and I looked back fondly on those blinking lights. If they tried to install that sort of system here, the sewers would run red with blood.

So anyway, I manage to avoid hitting this guy and pull in behind him. I’m a bit ticked, but this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary. “Moron,” I mumble, and then I promptly put it out of my mind. The story, however, does not end here. Most of the road is one lane each way, but after you get past the apartment villages and start winding up a hill toward the main road, it splits into two lanes on the upward side so cars can pass the many lumbering construction vehicles that take this road (to build the apartment villages and roads, of course). Sure enough, there is a cement mixer in front of us. I bide my time, waiting for the left lane to open up. When it does, I look over at Moron. He shows no sign of moving into the left lane—no blinkers, not even a wiggle—so I pull out and begin to pass him. Just as I pull alongside him, he starts to pull into the left lane (still no blinker, mind you) and lays on his horn. I jam my first into my horn and slam on the brakes. Rather than pulling back into the right lane, he pulls even further left, completely cutting me off. I stop to avoid running into him, and he stops as well.

Then he leans out the window and starts to say something to me. I never did hear what he said, because I immediately started screaming my head off and jabbing my index finger into the air. I was furious. Had he gotten out of the car, I have no doubt that I would have beaten him to a bloody pulp. Confucian age hierarchy my butt (he looked to be in his late forties or early fifties).

Fortunately for both of us, he did not get out of the car. Perhaps it was the sight of a freaky-looking foreigner, perhaps it was the unending invective pouring out of my mouth, or perhaps it was the combination of the two. Whatever it was, he stuck his head back inside the car and took off. Again, he didn’t speed off. He just calmly drove off like nothing had ever happened. In retrospect, I’m inclined to believe that either a) everything after the stoplight was deliberately done to piss me off, or b) the guy is a psychopath.

I know I’ve written about driving here before, but I write about it again because it still presents me with my greatest challenge. The men of my family are known for their tempers, and I am quite proud that I have, for the most part, been able to cool down over the years. But when I’m on the road and I encounter one of the millions of morons who are out there, I just lose it. I said above that I would have beaten that man to a bloody pulp had he gotten out of the car. I’m not sure if that’s what I really would have done—but I was angry enough to do it. And that scares me.

I view driving as that final test in the struggle to control my temper. For Sartre, hell was other people. For me, hell is other drivers. More specifically, hell would be me in a Tico or (to be more up-to-date) a Matiz in downtown Seoul with nothing but taxis and buses on the road. Just thinking about it makes me want to extinguish life. If I could just control my temper while driving, I’d be all set. But what did the apostle Paul say about the thorn in his flesh? That God left it there so he would rely on His grace? Well, God, I’ve got plenty of other thorns... maybe you could take just this one out?

Yeah, so I guess I went on about that a little longer than expected. Sometimes you just need to get things out of your system, though. I feel better now. Purged.

Before my encounter with Moron, I thought of something at the health club that I thought was kind of amusing, but which my audience will probably not appreciate (with the possible exception of J.M., and maybe samonim). I usually don’t watch Korean dramas—in fact, if I can help it, I avoid Korean dramas like I avoid synchronized swimming. Oh, and “drama” here means “soap opera.” The Korean term is yeonsokgeuk, which literally means “serial drama.” Anyway, I usually avoid Korean dramas, but this week the health club owner’s wife is holding down the fort in the morning, and she has both TVs tuned into the morning drama. I suppose it might also have something to do with the fact that I’ve been heading out to the health club later this week than usual. I could try to avoid eye contact with the idiot box altogether, but when you’re in a room with two tubes it’s really hard not to watch. Especially when you’re taking a breather between sets.

Long story short, I ended up watching a bit of the morning drama. I also catch bits and pieces of the evening dramas my wife watches, so I’m not a complete hermit (and don’t tell anyone, but—forgive me, Father, for I have sinned—there was a drama called “Purity” a few years ago that I got sucked into). I could probably write an entire entry on Korean dramas, but for now I’ll just mention one thing that I find very amusing: the characters talk to themselves a great deal.

The scene always goes something like this. Two people who are antagonistic toward each other are talking. If they are not equals, the person higher up in the hierarchy (whatever hierarchy that may be) will generally say something to antagonize or put the other person down. The peon (not that they’re all peons, but let’s face it—it’s just a fun word to say) takes the abuse in silence, and the higher-up eventually makes some sort of overwrought face to indicate displeasure and leaves the room. At that point the peon looks in the direction in which the other character just exited and speaks his or her mind, saying what he or she couldn’t say while the higher-up was in the room.

The reason this is amusing is that Koreans don’t talk to themselves. If you talk to yourself in Korea, it means you’re crazy. You may be thinking, ‘Well, that’s the same everywhere,’ but it’s not. When I say that Koreans don’t talk to themselves, I mean they do not say anything unless it is addressed to another person.

Perhaps an anecdote will illustrate what I’m talking about. My sister-in-law works at an English language school as a secretary, and she often asks me about some of the things the English teachers do. You know, to find out if all Americans are like that or if she just works with a bunch of loonies. One day she asked me if Americans talked to themselves a lot. I realized that I had never thought about it all that much, but after thinking for a moment I replied that they sometimes do, depending on the situation.

She then told me about what had happened at the school that day. She had walked into the copier room to find an English teacher standing there next to the copier, ranting and raving to the air. It turns out the copier was broken, and he was cursing at the copier. She thought this was very odd and wondered if maybe he wasn’t a little loco. I laughed and assured her that his actions were more or less normal by American standards.

She then said, “We would never do that in Korea. If the copier breaks we just stand there and look at it.” At this point she put her hands on her hips and stared disgustedly at an imaginary copier in front of her. “Maybe if someone is in the room with us we’ll say, ‘Oh, the copier’s broken again,’” she added. I always enjoy hearing her takes on American/Western habits and actions because it gives me a fresh perspective on familiar things. It also gives me insight into the Korean mindset. Although I had never thought about it before, I realized that Koreans really don’t talk to themselves at all, even to curse out an ornery copier.

And yet, when you watch Korean dramas, you’ll see the characters talking to themselves left and right. And it’s not always just a word or two tossed after the retreating offender—they’ll sometimes go on at considerable length. Long enough to make you realize that the whole thing is rather absurd, but not quite long enough that you start mistaking it for a Shakespearean soliloquy. The reason, of course, is dramatic in nature—the same reason that Shakespearean soliloquies exist: because what the character is thinking is important to the drama, and there’s no other way to get inside the character’s head. On television, of course, you can do a voiceover to simulate a character thinking, but then you have to watch an actor or actress desperately try to act like he or she is thinking when in reality there is nothing happening on the set. Soliloquies may be absurd, but voiceovers are just painful.

I don’t know, maybe that all seems very obvious, but if you view it in the context of Korean society, it is a piece in the puzzle that is the surreal atmosphere of Korean dramas. I never really watched all that many American soap operas either, so I wouldn’t know if this phenomenon is universal. That would make a very interesting comparative study, though, and with my major of oral literature I could probably get away with it, too. Unfortunately, it would mean that I would not only have to watch Korean dramas, but American soap operas as well. I might as well do a paper on the relative merits of synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.

I’ve had other things on my mind as well, of course. The new semester has started, and my workload is so intense that I don’t feel I can really take more than one class. I really want to finish my coursework, but not at the cost of a burn out. I suppose I should be thankful. For the work, I mean. I have more than enough work to keep me busy these days, so much so that I recently quit one of my magazine jobs. Like sharks to blood, the calls have been coming in left and right for one project or another. I’ve had to turn down numerous jobs—all worthwhile projects, but just too much for me to handle at the moment. And yet, the workload seems to increase ever so gradually. No matter how many jobs I may turn down, there are always those little things that slip through—those jobs that I really can’t turn down.

I remember a time when I was so desperate for work that I was reduced to teaching English to elementary school kids. Not that I have anything against English teachers, but to be perfectly honest, just about anyone can come to Korea to teach English—yes, dear reader, even you. Although standards have gotten more strict than when I used to teach, they are still fairly low (I think a college degree—in anything—is the minimum requirement these days). Translation, on the other hand, is not something anyone can do, which is perhaps why I get so many job offers. I know that may sound a bit high and mighty, but really I’m just a niche-filler. I found a niche and just kind of oozed in to occupy it.

So, like I said above, I should be thankful. I do something that not everyone can do, and I get paid fairly well to do it. I must admit that I have dealt with the fleeting financial temptation—if I were to quit my studies and focus on translating for money (i.e., only take the jobs that pay well), I could do very well. That is completely out of the question, of course—I didn’t come this far just to give it all up for some green (and orange, and pink... ah, how colorful Korean currency is). But the fact remains that I am indeed blessed. Sometimes I just wish I weren’t blessed so much and so often.

That’s a terribly ungrateful thing to say, I know. There are people who would give their left leg to have the opportunities I have, people desperate for any sort of job. And then there are those who would just like to fall asleep to something other than gnawing hunger. But the world is not a fair place, and distribution of wealth is not equal. I just sometimes need to stop and think about what I have, and to be thankful. And to never forget that to whom much is given, much is required.

And I suppose that’s it for this week’s episode of Miscellaneous Ramblings. Congratulations if you made it this far without falling asleep or stabbing yourself in the eye to end the misery. If the traditional Liminality entry is a nutritional, four-food-groups meal, then I suppose today’s meanderings are a heaping pile of junk food. Just don’t tell Mom I let you have chocolate cake and Doritos for breakfast.

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