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Krazy in Korea

Today is Budda’s birthday. Or, as my Korean students say “Butanem.” Or “Buchanem.” Or “Butchanem.” According to my kids, I haven’t said it right yet. I think the last time I called him “Buchanan” and they only giggled “some” as opposed to “alot.” I say the name of a right wing idiot and they hear the name of a fat holy man.

You can take from that what you will.

In any case, today, in honor of the spiritual master, I’ve decided to walk the middle path. In this post I’ll tell you a little about a lot of different things here in Korea. I figure I’d start with something I’ve noticed about Korean kids here, and the South Korean people in general: I’m not sure they can die by conventional means.

Yeah. I know. I’ll explain.

Let’s start with the near fatal collisions that the kids here call “crossing the street.” As I’ve previously stated, the chances of ending up a traffic fatality here are just a little bit lower than getting regular mail delivery. To my thinking, the effect on every Korean mother with small kids should be obvious. You get a tube of Krazy Glue the size of a pepperoni stick and physically attach your kids to your apron till age 14. If you can also instill a deep-seeded fear of crosswalks, it would probably help.

And yet that’s the reason I’m not a Korean mother…aside from the lack of Asian ethnicity, children and a uterus.

It seems the plan for local moms here is not only to let their kids run into traffic, but encourage them to take along their little brother. Then, combine this quaint tradition with the U.N. officially recognized third worst drivers in the world. What’s that give you?

A nation full of seven year olds creating their own daily X-Game event.

Now, have I seen any hits? Any accidents? Any Hyundai bumpers wearing Garanimals? No I have not. I’ve seen so many close calls I could make a Fox Special out of it, but not one injury. Against all odds, these kids not only grow up, they grow up fast. They live like stuntmen, fight like Irishmen and pick their noses with joyful abandon.

Yeah, charming mental image. But I actually have to see it everyday.

While I find it daunting to understand this Darwinian mothering process, I can’t blame the kids themselves. I mean an eight year old is bound to be a little edgy if he’s been smoking half a pack of cigs a day since he was born. And growing up fast? Well that’ll happen if you come out two years old.

Oh, believe me, there’s an explanation.

Let’s start with the age thing. Now, as I always saw it, the whole age and birthday thing, aside from those unlucky enough to get Feb 29th birthdays, was a relatively simple affair. You come out on a day. 365 days pass. You turn a year older. End of story. The world doesn’t turn faster in one part than another so everyone, short of the leap year pariahs, goes through the same thing at the same rate. On the upside, it’s all democratic and equal. On the downside, I turn 30 in February. All in all though, that’s the process and everybody does it the same way everywhere.


Except in Korea.

In a move that will surely delight the pro-life factions of the world, when a child is born in Korea, he comes out and is…wait for it…1 YEAR OLD. That’s right. Upon his introduction to cold air, circumcision and ass slapping doctors, a child comes into Korea with a full year under his belt. Now according to the copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” that I read at age 9 the Korean 1 year math is obviously off by three months. I would also like to add I read that book for insight and NOT naked pictures.

Hey that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Anyhow, despite the awkward medical figuring, you still have to appreciate the sentiment. A kid comes out 1 year old because he had life from the moment his father said “Was it good for you too?” It’s odd but it makes sense in a philosophical kind of way. It’s also practical, given how close most of these kids are to danger. You wanna give the tykes credit for every possible year before you turn them loose on the streets. I put the odds 1 in 4 they don’t come back.

So, to recap, this aging aspect is weird, but medically, at least it has some basis.

The next part is just cracked.

When a kid in Korea is born he gets a year. Okay. But, when the Chinese New Year comes, he gets…are you ready?… ANOTHER year. In fact, let’s say a child is born the day before Chinese New Year. He comes out 1 year old. The next day? BAM! Two. Two days old and two years old. It’s the sort of thing that could make Mr. Rogers drop dead right on the spot. So to finish this age-math thing, ALL children will get those two full years I mentioned before added to their total age. As a result they will turn, on their first birthday…three years old.

Bring on the toilet training.

Why do they do this? There’s some speculation it was to boost the ranks of the the army by getting around age barriers and just making everyone older. One guy I asked said it was something ceremonial having roots in a certain holiday…though he couldn’t remember the ceremony…or the holiday…or his exact age. Still he was an excellent taxi driver and he didn’t hit any kids.

Me? I think the whole thing was concocted by the Korean tobacco industry. There’s a huge social taboo for women to smoke in public here and I think the whole thing was a ruse to get more men going on coffin nails younger. Makes me think the whole deal was concocted by some guy in marketing. A guy with his head up his pipe. It’s nearly pointless. Thing is, as I was mentioning before, kids here already have smokers coughs by the time they hit pre-school. How?

Well let me hork up a lung and I’ll tell you.

FYI: Not only does Seoul have one of the highest fatality rates by auto in the world, they also have, by city, one of the highest concentrations of cars. High polluting cars that nearly all run on diesel.

Then there’s the US military. They use facilities, equipment and vehicles that are all, highly polluting. And there’s a lot of them. How many? Enough to keep me from getting lucky with any woman in Korea. That’s a mind numbing number right there.

Additionally, even for Asian cities, Seoul has an incredibly high industrial component in the form of unregulated factories, coal and oil burning power plants and local gift shops. Yes I said gift shops. Look there’s something going on there okay? Gift shops don’t need four chimmney’s to sell jewelry boxes.

Anyway, combine all the above with the world’s highest country-wide rate of tobacco use. In Korea cheap cigs abound and the smoking laws here are so lax that you can light up in a daycare center if you want. Then throw in a Korean EPA that aggressively responds to litter in the street, but only seems to care about air quality if something is actively on fire.

Smoldering is a judgement call.

All totaled, what you get is an environment where day to day living for non-smokers, according to some estimates, is like puffing 8 smokes a day. More in the summer when the air quality goes from “bad” to “I can’t see my feet.” That goes for old people, adults, kids and even those newly born 2 year old babies.

I call it Seoul smoking. I set on that name somewhere between the time I discovered that Seoul’s air was making me hork loogies 10 times a day and the time I decided my spit tasted like All Tempertature Cheer. Yes, cheery image. And once again, I’m the gomer who has to live it every day.

So, how bad is the pollution? Enough to risk fashion ridicule. For the conservative female element, that’s a big deal. Many folks here, girls included, wear surgical masks during the day to filter out some of the toxins in the air. I think, mathwise, it makes you cut down to three Seoul Smokes a day. You still have trouble with stairs but your teeth are less yellow.

It’s odd looking I’ll grant you, but it’s odder still to see the brownish black residue in the middle of the mask where their noses are at the end of the day. When I first saw the masks, then saw the residue, then figured out what it meant…well it really struck me. Of course that’s also because I though for the first month the masks were a tribute to the TV show “M.A.S.H.”

I gotta stop listening to taxi drivers.

But back to Seoul Smoking. Here’s where it gets fun: if you do something strenuous your breathing becomes more intense and you Seoul Smoke MORE. Just running for the bus is like one extra cigarette. Those kids playing soccer? Two pack a dayers. That idiot jogging? He’ll be dead by the time he’s forty.

So remember those kids running across the streets into dangerous traffic? They’re not only risking death by Daewoo truck they’re also lighting up two extra Seoul Smokes while they do it. Finally, that nose picking thing? It isn’t a hygiene issue, it’s respiration. They’re just trying to clear a breathing line.

Yet through all of this, the kids, and the folks here in general, remain as optimistic and energetic as a bunch of baptists in the bathtub. Even with the cars, the smoke and the masks, the total life-span isn’t too far off from our much vaunted one in the USA. You gotta appreciate that. This nation is filled with a lot of resillient people. Or aliens with superpowers masking as Koreans.

I’m still on the fence.

Now I realize that’s a stretch but bear with me. Last weekend, our Boss, Mr Kim, took us all on a bonding weekend. Companies here in Korea do them all the time. The idea is that if you take a bunch of your employees on a retreat to get them to form connections with one another, they’ll be less likely to quit. Given a retention rate here at the Wonderland School slightly less a George W Bush “grammar advisor,” one could say our bonding weekend was overdue. Plus, with payday just a week and a half off – the prime day for escape from Wonderland – we set off for the Mountains. It was in a beautiful place in the south in a province I could not name or pronounce now if I had a gun to my head.

So don’t ask.

The first thing I noticed? The well appointed highway rest stops. These things are like palaces with noodle stalls. There were clean amenities, there were affordable souveniers, there was even this thing that shined your shoes and rubbed your ankles. Though I may have been using it wrong. But still, even the men’s bathroom in one had a gian and beautiful mural on its arched ceiling. I’m no expert but I say that artwork easily rivals Europe’s finest men’s bathrooms. Especiall France.

The second thing I noticed? I could breathe. Having been in something of a lethargic state since I got to Korea, it was slowly dawning on me that maybe air quality had something to do with it. For the past month and a half I have had insomnia, a bad cold and something on my feet that is either not serious or is hoof and mouth disease. I’ll keep you posted. Unless I get culled.

But here, in the fresh air of the countryside…here I was REBORN. It was amazing. I had the energy of ten men. All because I could breathe. I would never make fun of one of those Aftrin commercials again. After a seven hour bus ride, when we got to Maisan mountain…I was ready.

Someone mentioned that the translation for Maisan was, literally, “My Mountain.” Indeed. That’s what I would make it. MY Mountain. Of course that meant that the phrase “Maisan Mountain” meant “My Mountain…Mountain.”

I didn’t dwell on it. Translation wasn’t my strong point.

When time came to head up and climb the mountain, I got right in front. I took off eagerly up the path. And then the stairs. And then another path and then up a steep embankment where I worked up a sweat.

And then past a pond where you could ride duck boats. Very pretty.

But then it was back up the mountain. Finally, I arrived at the top of a long flight of narrow stairs by teetering rock mounds assembled in spiritual towers. I went past the temple of a dead yogi who was considered one of Korea’s great Mountain Buddhas. Then, behind the temple, I went up a short path that was barely there.

And there I stood.

I was on top of the mountain. The top! I let out a roar. I had a woman take my picture with my arms raised in victory. The woman had three children and they had all made it up here in a faster time than me…but they didn’t get here first. I did. That was MY victory on MY mountain. About five minutes later, someone else from MY group pointed out this was the temple at the base of MY mountain.

MY mountain was up the steep slope to my left.

Soon after, I was bearing up THAT trail. Victory would be mine yet. First, up a steep slope. Then, around a rocky bend. Then past a few more temples. And around a guy selling soft serve ice cream.

Okay, but these concession guys were everywhere. Seriously. I’m not sure who was handing out the cotton candy concessions in Korea, but when someone offered “rocky half trail #2 on Maisan” these guys jumped at the chance. Plus it was good cotton candy.

Anyhow, past trails, over rocks and up stairs I climbed. Higher and higher across increasingly less developed paths. Finally I arrived at the top. A place with a view of southern Korea that went on for miles. And a guy selling fried squid. I savored. I enjoyed. I looked left.

Another freaking staircase.

Now I was ticked. This was MY mountain. If I had to beat it like the Buffalo Bills in a Championship Game, dammit I would. I headed up the stairs, remarkably new in condition. I thought, “Finally. Maybe these trails are getting better.” When the metal stairs gave way to sparse stone steps I thought I might be mistaken. When the steps gave way to steep loose trails of dirt I knew I was mistaken.

And then I saw the rope.

All at once the trail stopped and was replaced by thick gauge rope. The line was tied from tree to tree up the mountain with large handhold knots every three feet. This was the trail to the top of the mountain. An unsupervised, unmanaged thick twine. A twine, I would add, that was barely tied to half buried shrubs. Twine that hung over dirt that slid if you breathed on it.

A US National Park Service tramway this was not.

On cue, some of my fellow Wonderland teachers, who had gotten ahead of me by not stopping for the smoked chestnuts, came falling down the rope. Jono, a UK teacher, remarked it was like “the subway with rope burns.” Danya, an Israeli neo-hippie type came half tumbling as fast as her open toed sandals could take her. Rodney our Newfoundland Canada teacher, came last. Rodney’s a fairly brave bear of man who once almost lost his leg riding his motorcycle. The jist is that he’s no coward. His take on the half hike?

“Hey boy. It’s a fookin dethtrap. Fook’s sake.”

Poetic…but not enough to stop me. They didn’t make it. I would. I started up the rope and, quite eagerly, charged up the mountain. Hand over hand, I pulled. From tree to tree I jumped and swayed. At one point a stray rock absently kicked from above missed my head by half a meter. My hands were red, my clothes were dirty, I was even passing Native Koreans on my way up. Inxeperienced female natives in inappropriate mountain climbing shoes but natives all the same. Here I was. I was climbing MY Mountain.

After about an hour, that whole My Mountain charm had worn off.

From pinky to thumb I had a big welt at the end of each arm where my hands used to be. I was sweating like a sheep in a room full of Scotsmen. And somehow I had rope burns on my ass. I was all but ready to snap a “I was here” pic with my fun-saver disposable camera and head back down.

And then I saw Mr. Kim coming up the rope.

Well NOW, my boss was coming, with Mr. Jun, a school administrator AND Gloria, a fellow teacher in tow. A Canadian teacher. I couldn’t be shown up by a Moulson swilling Canadian. I was going up the mountain. And I was gonna beat all of them.

A second wind now in me, I flew up the hill. I even started singing Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” for a little bit. At least until I realize the half hearted “ooh..ahh” parts were winding me. Better to conserve energy and climb I thought. And so I did. Everytime I got tired I’d look behind me and see the boss and just keep going. This guy might be able to drink me under the table, eat peppers that could take the paint off your car and sing a better karaoke version of “My Way” but I was gonna be FIRST up that mountain.

Petty? Sure. But “petty” is s a better motivator than you’d imagine.

Finally, an hour later, we reached the summit. With the last of my energy I bounded up the well worn trail and I saw the giant pile of rocks that stood as a monument to all who ascended the peak. I gingerly took a stone from the ground, placed it on the mound and looked around, marvelling at what I had accomplished. Mr. Kim followed. Then Gloria. Then the stone faced school administrator Mr. Jun. He shook my hand and I knew that even HE respected the enormous physical undertaking we’d, oh hell, I’D just done. Mr. Kim came over, clapped me on the back and pointed. He smiled and said, warmly: “You want a coke?”

That’s when I noticed the Korean guy with the cooler.

I was panting, sweating, DYING to get up the side of this mountain. I had rope burns, welts and a pebble in my pants that would not come out till I ate some fiber. But there THIS guy sat: the coca-cola cooler guy. He lounged, he sunned and he lay there relaxing uninterestedly. He was mocking everything thing I thought I had done. And he was doing it in a freakin lawn chair. Sure, I had climbed up the mountain. But he had done the same thing and had managed to get a cooler, ice and 50 cans of Coke up the same rock strewn, dirt-sliding, overly steep hill.

Plus that freaking lawn chair.

Frankly, I didn’t think it could get any worse till Mr. Kim came over with our cold cokes. That’s when I found out that the cooler guy was only charging 50% more for sodas than the guys at the bottom of the hill. Only 50%. That’s it. This layabout had a cooler of cold soda – Cokes – on a remote mountaintop an hour from any competition with the fried squid guy below. And he wasn’t even price gouging.

The New Yorker in me cried a little that day.

As we headed down the mountain, I gained a newfound respect for the already established resillience of the South Korean people here. Whether they are simply an amazing nation or invulnerable aliens masking as Asians, I may never know for sure. Although I will say the latter explanation goes a long way to explain why the women won’t mate with me.

Still, what I do know, and what I did learn that day, is that in Korea they have plenty of park concessions, the Korean Park Rangers don’t seem to pick up many native dead bodies on the trails and what seems difficult to us is just a walk in the park to the folks who live here. I took some comfort in that as I stumbled my way down the trail once more and took one last look at the Coca-Cola cooler guy. In his own way, this guy was a hero and he deserved respect. I would give it to him

Then I saw him take out his beach umbrella. Son of a bitch.

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