Strong Language

My kindergarten students, all aged 5, do not understand the economy of language at all. They believe that sentences become stronger with length, when in reality the opposite is almost always true. It begins every morning when I ask them “How are you?”

As a joke, they like to respond with “I’m angry!” It’s not a very good joke. In fact, their inability to grasp the basic rules of comedy is another one of the shameful failings of my students. To them, comedy is simple irony. If you tell them to sit, they will stand. If you say hello, they will say bye-bye. If you tell them to whisper, they will scream. It gets to the point where attempts at levity devolve into insubordination. Or maybe I’m just not a good teacher.

Comedy, to a child, means identifying those things which are outside the realm of the usual, and referencing it ad nauseam. Kids are observant that way. They notice my unusual (to them) skin tone, and the hair on the back of my hands, and the way I cut my hair. This last one is especially sensitive, because I cut my hair myself, and I’m not very good at it.

But I digress.

My 5-year-olds believe that starting a morning by saying “I am angry” is top-shelf humour. And I will grant that it is a clever twist on convention, but the joke loses some of its luster once it has been said by a dozen students, individually, every day, for 60 days in a row. If they were professional comedians, speaking to a fresh audience every day, then perhaps they could be forgiven for the repetition. But as far as I can tell, they all have an audience of one, and that audience has thoroughly gotten the joke.

Until now, I’ve been writing their response as “I’m angry” for the sake of clarity. But the truth is that their answer to “How are you?” is not as succinct as that. Really what they will say is something along the lines of “Very very very very angry angry angry angry angry.”

It has become a game among my students to see who can express the most anger by giving the longest answer. Students will whistle out “very very very very angry angry angry angry” at high velocity, forcing as many verys and angrys into their response as they can until they run out of breath. Oftentimes their words will dissolve into nonsense, with their response sounding more like a buzzing “ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve-ve [GASP] ve-ve-ve-ve-ve ang-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g!”

Not to be outdone, the next student will attempt an even longer string of meaningless noise, presumably to demonstrate that they are orders of magnitude angrier than the first student, and therefore somehow the winner of this ridiculous game.

I wish I could explain to my kids that their repeated use of very and angry does nothing to increase the strength of their answer. It’s basic maths:

Very + angry
= (1) + (1)
= 2


Very very very + angry angry angry
= (1) (1) (1) + (1) (1) (1)
= 2

So why waste your breath?

But it goes even deeper than that. My students don’t seem to realize that such long sentences yield diminishing returns. The more they speak, the more they lose. Like a person who swears all the time moves no one when they swear again, a person who is angry all the time surprises no one when they continue to repeat that they are angry. So I am not phased by young children repeating “very” and “angry” to the point of collapse. But I do think that I would become truly alarmed if one of them were to simply say, “Teacher, I’m angry.”

I will admit though, that as tiresome as this ritual can be, my writers’ room of 5-year-old comedy writers do occasionally strike it lucky. It’s usually a case of infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, but as their English vocabulary grows, so too grow their possible responses. You see, once each student has worn themselves weary from their marathon of verys and angrys, I will humor them by asking why they are so angry. Here, their tiny excited eyes will dart around the room, and they will begin naming names. “Because of Zack!” they will say. Except of course, they will say the real names of the students in my classroom. “Because of Kenneth! Libby! Jamie! Milo!” The more names they can call out, the better, as if to cast their net of anger wide. It’s a tease to their friend, and you can bet that when the friend’s turn comes around, they will list the original child as the source of their ire.

More recently, however, they have started becoming more abstract, shaping their responses around words they have heard recently. Once they learned the word “frog,” they began saying, “Angry because Michael Teacher is angry frog!”

When they learned the word ambulance I was informed that they were angry because “Michael Teacher is ambulance!”

And sometimes, on an unexpectedly harsh day like today, I was served with the deeply cutting response, “Angry because of Michael Teacher’s haircut!”

Tall Stories

I have a friend who is somewhat taller than average. She knows she is taller than average because people – complete strangers even – will often point this out to her.

“You’re tall,” they’ll say. “Taller than average, in fact.”

“Thanks,” my friend will say. “I know.”

Honestly, what other response is there to such an obvious observation?

Am I? I hadn’t realized! Or

No, everyone else is just short. Or

You’re the first person to point this out! Here’s a thousand dollars!

The thing is, my friend is many things, and tall is just one small part of all the wonderful things that make up who she is. Her height is far from her defining characteristic. It must be annoying, then, to have her height pointed out all the time. It’s an observation that achieves nothing. No new information is traded or gained. Overall, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

I thought about my friend last weekend while I was at an airport in Seoul. In the center of a group of European tourists I observed the tallest man I had ever seen. I can say without exaggeration that he was over seven feet tall. He seemed young, perhaps in his twenties, and his slender build only accentuated his height. He probably suffered from circulation issues. I imagine it was hard for him to find clothes that fit. I thought sadly how he would need to fold himself into his seat on his upcoming flight.

Once the initial surprise of seeing someone so tall began to abate, I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling of impotence. What could I do? How could I react? There was nothing to be gained from observing this man.

Obviously, approaching the tall man was out of the question. I was not a casting agent looking for a giant. I was not a basketball scout looking for a talented player. I was not a medical student looking to test a hypothesis. All in all, there was nothing I could say to him that he didn’t already know. I tried to think of possible openers that would justify my hijacking his attention:

You’re tall! Taller than average, in fact!… Too trite.

Did you lose a bet with a wizard?… Too mean spirited.

Can I have a thousand dollars?… Too late. Someone else had probably claimed that money first.

No, as much as I wanted to engage with this fellow, I could think of nothing worthwhile to say to him. I had no access. Talking to him would not add value to the world.

At least it’s a story, I thought. I can’t wait to tell my friends about this!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Story of the Tall Man I Saw at the Airport would probably make for one of the dullest anecdotes I’ve ever told. There is probably no duller story than an observation that means nothing to no one. How exactly would that story go? I’d burst into the room, tell everyone to stop what they were doing, and then I’d say, “I saw a tall guy. Cool, huh?”

Or perhaps I’d be more smug about it: “Hey imagine a really tall person. Well I saw one, but in real life!”

Honestly, what is a listener supposed to do with that information?

The more I thought about it, the more enraged I became. I had experienced something memorable, but the moment had no application. I realized then that I had come face to face with something that was None Of My Business. And perhaps that’s where the lesson lies. I am of the demographic that was raised to believe that everything is about me. By birthright I am compelled to comment and opine and vie for the spotlight every time something noteworthy occurs. But when I saw that tall man I learned that some things have nothing to do with me at all, and I should just learn to keep my mouth shut and live with that. The world is filled with wonderful and interesting people, and trying to make some sort of social profit off of their existence only sullies that.

I do realize the irony in writing an entire blog about how I dutifully kept my thoughts to myself and minded my own business. But learning to let others simply be is a hard lesson for me to internalize. So let me have this, please.

Luckily, Fortunately, and At Least

I recognize that I’m an optimist, so this might not always hold true, but I find that stories of tragedy are never without glimmers of light. Whenever someone recounts to me a story of personal woe, I look out for their use of words like “luckily,” “fortunately,” and “at least.”

“Luckily a car eventually stopped to help.”

“Fortunately I had my spare credit card with me.”

“At least I wasn’t alone.”

I don’t say this to diminish the severity of people’s experiences. Bad things are bad, and it isn’t always helpful to explain that they could have been worse. What interests me is the little miracles that often seem to accompany people during their darkest times. 

“Luckily my neighbour answered the door.”

“Fortunately there was a clinic just up the road.”

“At least they didn’t charge me for the screwup.”

I think about this a lot in my own life. When dwelling on my moments of deepest despair, I marvel at the small details that helped me get through it. 

“Luckily I managed to pick up free wifi.”

“Fortunately the person behind me spoke English.”

“At least we could afford the treatment.”

In these reveries I try to imagine what would have happened if these little miracles hadn’t transpired. What if no one had stopped to help? What if there was no rainy day fund? What if there was no place to go?

As I cycle through these alternative realities my imagination always gets hitched onto some other positive happenstance. 

I would have had to walk all night, but at least I’d have gotten there.

A friend would have intervened.

I would have spent one night on the street, but I’d have gotten home the next day.

Whatever scenario I conjure, the story always ends the same way: with me, now, in this moment, thinking about what happened.

The attractive takeaway from this is that perhaps there are always forces at work in the universe that will prevent you from totally losing everything. Maybe it’s against some arcane law of physics to fall completely and fully into oblivion. Maybe.

But I think that the more realistic rationalization is that it’s all about the story. If I tell you about the darkest, saddest moment of my life, you know it turned out alright because I’m there telling you about it. So even at the outset you, the listener, have hope for me. 

That said, we must also acknowledge the sad truth that for some, bad things happen and there are no miracles. Those people who suffered without redemption are not around to say things like “luckily,” “fortunately,” and “at least.”

When speaking about her path to success, the director Greta Gerwig said in a podcast, “There was always a person when I needed them that had a little key for me.” I think about that line a lot, and how, had she not found the success she has today, she wouldn’t have been around to say it.

I think, then, that it’s always a good practice to be conscious of our role as narrators in our own lives and to look out for those little miracles that often pass us by unnoticed. As long as we continue to tell the story of ourselves, we’ll know that failure has not consumed us, and that we have not succumbed to extinction. I know that for me, even in low moments, success will always lie ahead as long as I continue to say, “luckily,” “fortunately,” and “at least.”

Professionalism with a Capital P

There is a common saying among myself only which is that it is better to have young students because that way they’ll never see you in a bar. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I don’t need to worry about that because none of my current students are older than nine, and I am fully confident that none of them will find themselves alone in a bar for another several years at least.

Besides, this blog isn’t about a bar.

It’s about a hospital.

Like a bar, a hospital is a place where people are vulnerable. They doff their masks to reveal the human underneath. If a student sees a teacher in a hospital, then the power balance is disrupted. That’s what happened to me the other day, and I think the student in question will never look at me in quite the same way again.

For reasons I cannot quite work out, my school sent me to do another medical checkup. For their internal records, they said. Perhaps this was just a kind way of saying that it was a random drug test. Whatever the case, I knew I had nothing to worry about. It was just a hassle. Identical to the first check up, I was made to put on a hospital shirt and sit at the nurses’ station. It was a long bench against a bleak white wall, facing some tables that were strewn with test tubes and syringes and computers and printouts. There was a blood pressure machine in one corner, a scale for measuring height and weight in another, and an eye chart against the back wall. Further along the bench I spotted a Korean man with his daughter. The daughter looked familiar, but I was too busy being shunted around by the nurse to really take notice. When I was bending down to remove my shoes for the scale, the man leaned forward and said, “Excuse me, are you Michael Teacher?”

I tilted my head to look up at him. Things were starting to make sense. The man had used my job title, and that was the clue I needed for context.

“My daughter says that you are her teacher.” From my vantage point there on the floor, wearing that unsightly hospital attire, I suddenly realized that the young girl was one of the students in my afternoon class. Her name was Trudy. At least, for the sake of her privacy it was, and she was usually quite bright, but terribly shy. Now, seeing her teacher genuflecting before her, she wasn’t saying anything.

“Hi Trudy!” I said, trying to spontaneously step into my role as a teacher. “I thought I recognized you!”

“Say hello to your teacher,” said the father. But the girl Trudy remained silent.

“She is shy,” explained the dad.

“Oh that’s alright, I understand,” I said. “But it’s really good to see you, Trudy!” I understood that I needed to reassure Trudy that I was always going to be her reliable and approachable teacher, wherever she might find me. But I was also knew that I needed to reassure the father that his daughter was always going to be in safe hands at her school. yet it was a challenge to maintain my professionalism while a flimsy plastic paddle smacked me on me head to measure my height.

Once that was done, I put my shoes back on and sat awkwardly on the long bench alongside my student and her father. I wanted this all to end. I looked silly, and I was tired and hungry. It had been a long day, and I didn’t want to play teacher anymore.

Just then, the nurse came over to me. She was holding a paper cup and a test tube, and, knowing what was about to happen, I immediately died a little on the inside. The nurse spoke almost no English, but she pointed to some markings she had made on the side of the cup.

“Pee to this line,” she said. “Then-” she mimed pouring the contents of the cup into the test tube. “When finished-” she pointed to another line sketched near the bottom of the cup, “pee to here. Bring me.”

It was a confusing instruction, but I think I understood it. “You want me to fill the test tube, and also leave some pee in the cup?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, nodding. The whole time I had been painfully aware that Trudy was watching the entire spectacle. All of the poise and respect for me I had instilled in her was being stolen away by a nurse with a plastic cup. I was, in a word, embarrassed.

Just then, the nurse, seeing that I might not have understood her instructions entirely clearly, did possibly the most mortifying thing I have endured since my arrival in Korea. She turned her attention to the father and explain to him, in Korean, everything she had just explained to me. I suspect there was a part of her that was hoping the father might have been able to interpret for her, but for whatever reason an interpretation never transpired. All I could think about was poor Trudy, sitting next to her father, while a nurse explained that in a few moments, her professional and trustworthy teacher was going to pee into a cup, and then show that pee to the nurse. I believe that for the first time, Trudy was made to think about what her teacher does behind closed doors.

While in the bathroom, I suffered a moment of doubt. Why did the nurse want a test tube and a cup of pee? I became terrified that I would bring a near-empty cup of urine to the nurse and she would say, “I don’t want that.” What would Trudy think? But I followed her instructions as correctly as I believed them to be, and I was immeasurably relieved when the nurse confirmed that I had done exactly what she wanted.

I somehow managed to survive the ordeal. Once I changed back into my ordinary work shirt I felt some of my pride returning, and before I left I said goodbye to Trudy and her father. “See you tomorrow, Trudy,” I said, in the most teacherly tone I could possibly muster.

“Say ‘Goodbye, Teacher,'” urged her father. But Trudy remained mercifully silent.

I’m sure that over time Trudy will forget about meeting her teacher in a hospital. But for the time being I cannot help but think of how she sees me now, and what associations come to mind when she thinks of me. I almost think that things would have been better if we’d run into each other in a bar.

Best Laid Phone Plans

A few weeks ago I went into a phone store to purchase a new phone plan. Up until then I’d been relying on wifi in order to use my phone, and I didn’t even have a phone number. But now that I had finally gotten my ARC (Korean ID), as well as a new bank account, getting a SIM card would be easy.

The salesman who came to my assistance smiled broadly and ushered me over to his desk. He asked me, in English, whether I spoke Korean, and I answered in the negative.

“That’s okay,” he said, again in English, “I speak a little English.” He held his thumb and his forefinger an inch apart, as if to express the extent of his English knowledge in terms of length. We both chuckled good-naturedly at each other. I felt that there was something smug about the man. He had the self-assurance of a salesman confident in their ability to make a sale, and I was his latest mark.

“So how can I help you today?” he asked, and I told him, in simple terms, what I wanted. There was something smug about me too that day. I had the self-assurance of someone who had lived in Korea before, and I was confident in my ability to negotiate this deal on my own. This feeling of smugness wasn’t new. It had been with me from the moment I reentered Korean airspace. As far as I was concerned, I was an expert when it came to Korea. I was familiar with the culture, I could read hangul, I could get around easily on my own. I already had a Korean bank account and a strong social network in another city. Added to that, I’d taken a job with a company that I’d worked with before, so I was already quite familiar with how they operated. I felt as if, even though I was starting from the beginning, I was always a few steps ahead. Compared to the other new teachers who had just arrived, I was a master. All of the challenges that they were facing for the first time had become so easy for me that they didn’t even register anymore. I felt like I was playing life with cheat codes on.

So the salesman and I got along smuggly. He had hardly begun to ask for my ID before I had it out of my pocket. My bank book was in his hand before he could even fully request it. We were remarkably compatible, this salesman and I, moving together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He click-clacked happily on his computer, enjoying the ease of his latest sale, when I noticed the broad smile creep bashfully away from his face. He stood up and and vanished into the back room for a time. I hadn’t begun to worry just yet. All my paperwork was in order, so I couldn’t foresee any problems.

When the salesman came back he looked concerned. He hesitantly asked me whether I’d been to Korea before, and that’s when it all made sense. Clearly, my name had come up when he’d begun inputting my information, and the man had gotten confused.

“Oh yes I lived here three years ago,” I said, smugger than ever, “so my name is probably still in the system. But I have a different ID now, you see.”

Still, the salesman did not smile. Instead, he carefully and awkwardly explained to me that I had and unpaid bill on my previous phone plan to the value of about $430 US. That’s about R6500. It was certainly more money than I could spend at that time. I told him that there had been some mistake; that I had paid up my previous phone contract, and cancelled it before I left Korea. He asked me if I had a Korean friend he could call, who could act as interpreter. I wound up calling one of my Korean co-teachers, and I handed the phone the salesman who was no longer smug at all. They chatted for some time, and the salesman even walked into the back room with my phone. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but surely it was all a misunderstanding. After all, I was an expert when it came to Korea. I was familiar with the culture, I could read hangul, I could get around easily on my own.

When the salesman came back, he was decidedly not smug. He handed me my phone, made a giant X with his forearms, and told me that I would not be able to purchase a new phone contract that day.

I left the shop in a daze. My Korean co-teacher explained to me, over text, that I had some outstanding fees with my previous phone plan. And since I had not paid those fees in almost a year, a fine had been added to it. In short, she said, I would not be able to get a new phone plan until I had paid that $430 fee. I was certain that there had been a mistake, and over the next few weeks my co-teacher helped me by calling and writing emails to the phone company. But answers didn’t come easily. My co-teacher said I should return to the phone store and request a copy of my old phone contract, which would give us more information about the origin of this fee. When I retraced my steps, the smug salesman did not acknowledge me. To him, I was a ghost. I was the guy who’d gotten himself into massive phone debt. I was the mark that got away.

In the end, I believe it all came down to a failure to communicate. I learned that, when I had bought my previous phone in Korea, about a year previously, I had thought I was buying it for a once-off fee at a massive discount. That long-ago salesman, however, had still expected me to pay off the rest of the phone over the following few months – something which I never did. So there I was, the expert when it came to Korea, realizing that had I never had any idea what I was doing, and suddenly burdened with the financial responsibility of half a phone.

The good news is that I did eventually get a phone plan. I have a phone number now, and data, so that I don’t always have to rely on wifi. I’m embarrassed but also humbled. I’m not the Korean expert that I thought I was, and I think it’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.

Being at Cherry Blossoms

Spring seems to have officially found its way to Korea, and even as far north as I am, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Or they were in bloom and now they’re all dead. It’s hard to tell, because it all happened so quickly.

Cherry blossom season is a natural phenomenon that humans have very little direct control over, and as a result it’s kind of difficult to know exactly what to do about it. There is nothing really do be harvested, or consumed, or even simply done when the trees explode into pink and white. Sure, there is some commercialism around this time – I think Starbucks sells a cherry blossom latte, whatever that is – but this doesn’t have any bearing on nature at all. As far as I can tell, the only thing humans have figured out to do when the cherry blossoms bloom is to try to simply be around them, and to look at them as much as possible. The discussions around cherry blossoms always start and end with Let’s go look at them. Or, to put it more technically: How can I, as a human, insert the optimal amount of cherry blossoms into my proximity and line of sight with minimal cost and effort?

There are cherry blossoms in my neighbourhood. Not a lot, but they’re there. I can see some from my window. There are also cherry blossoms in just about every city and town in Korea, from Daegang to Jeju. So I was quite spoiled for choice when given the opportunity to go and look at them. But how could I see the most of them at once? How could I optimize my flower-witnessing experience? My friend Jenna suggested that we go to Daegu. There were large clumps of cherry blossom trees there, she said, and it was also relatively equidistant from the both of us. So last weekend I hopped on a train and headed south in order to increase the magnitude of cherry blossoms that my ogling eyes could encompass.

Jenna and I met up at the intercity train station in Daegu. After strategizing over breakfast, we decided that the best course of action would be to travel a few subway stops into the city, where a park promised to reward us with an embarrassment of floral riches. After stepping off the subway and walking several blocks, we spotted a bright pink canopy along a river. The trees were numerous, as were the people strolling through and taking pictures. This, we surmised, must be the place.

Jenna and I walked along the paths under the canopy of the cherry blossom trees. It was a warm day, but the trees provided a cooling shade, and the dandruff of flower petals on the ground softened our steps. It was an idyllic place, and everywhere I turned, my view was ambushed by the gorgeous flowers. This is it, I thought to myself, I’m doing cherry blossoms! I’m observing the bejeezus out of them!

Our peaceful meander lasted almost the entirety of the next fifteen minutes. That was when we reached the other end of the short park and realized we’d seen just about everything that small slice of nature had to offer. We were once again out in the sun, next to a mildly busy road. Jenna and I paused awkwardly.

“Should we… should we go look at them again?” I suggested hesitantly.

“Yes,” said Jenna, “let’s do that.”

We looked at the cherry blossoms a second time. It was all very much the same as the first. I checked my watch.

“What now?” Asked Jenna.

“Maybe we go find a coffee shop? People watch a little bit?” I suggested.

“Sounds like a plan!” Agreed Jenna. I think we were both relieved to have something to do other than be in the proximity of pink trees.

Coffee shops in Korea are legion, so we were convinced that we would find a trendy place up any road we chose to travel. We began walking, leaving the peaceful shade of the cherry blossoms behind us. Eventually we came to a place that seemed interesting, but we found that they were closed. We continued to walk, and every subsequent coffee shop we arrived at was likewise shuttered. Perhaps, because it was a Sunday, cafes in this city didn’t open. Maybe the coffee shop owners also wanted their eyes to be at the trees. It was a mystery that we could not solve, but with nothing else to do, we trudged on.

My memory of that pleasant Sunday is dominated with thoughts of us walking up and down streets. Some of them busy, some of them industrial. We saw hardware stores and air conditioning units and more kitchen sinks than there were cherry blossom trees. This was our day in Daegu, hunting for coffee, with our time among the trees a faint prologue. We did eventually find a coffee shop. It was midway between the park and the subway station, and we stopped there for tea and cake. The cherry blossom trees had been lovely, but the half-hour that Jenna and I spent sitting at a table outdoors was my happiest moment. It was warm and peaceful. Maybe it’s because the weather had been cold for so long, but just being able to sit outside, with no strong obligations to do anything or go anywhere, felt like the very best thing in the world to me. I was glad to have made the journey to Daegu for that.

In the end, I did what was expected – I found a bunch of cherry blossom trees in full bloom, and I cast my eyes upon them. Festival: Accomplished. But really I spent more time walking around looking for a coffee shop than I did enjoying the trees, and that’s okay. There’s only so much enjoyment to be gained from that. I was just glad to be out in the sunshine with a friend.

Apartment Tour

Before coming to Sejong, I spent a lot of time looking up information online that would give me some sense of what to expect when I moved here. I had lived in Korea before, but this was a whole new city, and I had so many questions: What kind of weather could I anticipate? What could I do for fun? Where could I go running? How could I meet other foreigners? What kind of crimes could I do?

For the most part, the internet managed to answer my questions (Cold, go to the park, go to the park, go to the park, try not to do crimes). But my most pressing question was also the one that could not be answered beforehand: What would my apartment look like? I found a few videos online, but each abode was slightly different from the last, and wouldn’t necessarily reflect the one I would be assigned. I admit that I also harboured a secret hope that my apartment would be huger than the ones I saw on YouTube. Sadly, this did not turn out to be the case. Nevertheless, I quite like my apartment, so I would like to take you on a brief tour. In order to simplify the tour, and to make it more narratively compelling, I am going to divide it into two parts: Things I Like, and Things That Could Be Better. Now, bear in mind that I don’t pay rent, so there’s a lot of arrogance that goes into criticizing a free room that comes with electricity and hot running water.

The early days.

Things I Like About It

Like most apartments in Korea, mine comes with a refrigerator and stove built into the design, as well as a washing machine. So even though these things aren’t unique to my place, it is wonderful to not have to worry about buying my own.

One of the first thoughts I had when I first saw my apartment was that I had one wall that was almost entirely a window. This came as a huge relief. I’ve known people living in Korea that have only tiny portholes that don’t provide much of a view, or no windows at all. I was glad to have such a wide outlook on the world.

Another one of my first observations was that I had a large white wall with unblemished wallpaper. It might be curious to get excited about a boring white wall, but this particular wall happens to have the colour and texture of a projector screen. This is perfect for me, because it just so happens that I own a projector. So at night I am able to watch movies that have been blown up to the size of my entire blank wall.

I’m sorry about the mess, but I will not apologize for Savage Garden.

I like that my clothes horse is built into the architecture of my apartment. It stows away conveniently and doesn’t take up any extra space. Clothes horses have a tendency of dominating the spaces that they’re in, even when they are not in the process of drying clothes. I was glad to not have that problem, but also, hold your applause until the next section, please.

I realize now that I cut off one arm of the horse in this photo, but I was trying to avoid focusing on my kitchen.

I like that the apartment comes with a large shelf section and work station. This was especially useful when I first arrived and had no furniture. I think this area was designed for more academic purposes, but I like using the shelves as a kind of pantry, and the desk as a cooking counter.

Space is limited though. I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get a toaster.

The shower is a delight. I have two shower heads – one is removable and allows me to direct the spray in any direction I choose. The other is a waterfall-type jobbie which is great to simply stand under while I pretend to be in a shampoo commercial.

I like showering with no clothes on. I’m just weird like that.

My bathroom also has an entire mirrored wall. I am all for mirrors, and think bathrooms everywhere should have more of them. I’m of the opinion that naked bodies look their best in bathrooms, and having so much mirror allows me to watch myself as I pretend to star in my own shampoo commercial. My bathroom also has a lot of shelf space and quite a capacious cabinet. But again, please hold your applause until the end.

I like how efficient my apartment is with space. There are a surprising amount of cupboards and wardrobes and draws and shelves for storing away just about everything. But once all the doors and draws are shut, the space appears simple and minimalist. There is no obvious indication that this tiny room is hiding tons and tons of clothes and crockery and bric-a-brac and appliances and toilet paper.

Things That Could Be Better

Now, I don’t want to get too bogged down in negativity here. I want to only focus on the expectations that were not met, and the few details that make me scratch my head and wonder at the mindset of the architect who brought my living space to life.

I think my first impression upon seeing my apartment for the first time was the disappointment that it was as small as I feared it would be. I can cover the distance from my front door to the back wall in about three-and-a-half strides. Actually…
Okay, five strides, it turns out. Aside from the bathroom, every corner of the apartment is visible from every other corner of the apartment. What kind of house party could I throw here? There is no place for me to secretly gossip to Guest A about Guest B.

To be honest I was a little disappointed that my apartment didn’t come with a microwave. But to be fair, this was never something that was promised to me; I simply took it for granted that I would have one, along with the fridge, stove, and washing machine. But I managed to find a secondhand one for cheap, and it hides away nicely inside a cupboard above the stove that happens to have a power outlet in it. It’s the perfect space for a microwave, but it’s also quite high up, which means I can’t really see what’s going on in there. There is something quite terrifying about having to hold dangerously hot dishes above my head on a daily basis.

Yes, the framing is terrible. But in my defense I didn’t want to retake it.

My clothes horse acts as a kind of childproof lock on my cupboards. Once it is deployed, and my clothes are all hanging up to dry, it becomes a bit of a mission to access anything else in my wardrobe. I have to reach feel around underneath the Hanging Garments of Babylon to retrieve dry clothes, and often have to carefully pull t-shirts out through the bars of the clothes horse. Maybe the architect expects me to remain unclothed while my laundry dries? That would explain all that pro-nudity business that’s going on in the bathroom.

Speaking of bathrooms, my bathroom cabinet doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. To my eyes it looks like the architect built in a few security features to prevent anyone from placing anything on its shelves. There are parallel bars running down one side of it, which means you have to carefully maneuver objects through that narrow space in order to put anything there. I’m sure there was a very specific idea in mind about how a shelf like that should be stocked, but I for one cannot fathom what that idea is.

My bathroom cabinet AKA toilet paper jail.

The water will not get hot. This isn’t a terrible problem, since the apartment is extremely well insulated and very rarely gets cold. But I do miss a scalding hot shower. I believe the water temperature in my building is controlled from somewhere outside my apartment, so all I can do is tolerate what I have.

I could nitpick this place forever, but anything is nitpickable if you try. Instead, I’ve adapted to this place’s oddities, and choose to think instead about the things that make it homely. Homely as in, like a home. Not the other meaning. I like my fancy toilet seat, and I like that I have blinds on my windows, and I like that my fridge is big, and that I can plug USB cables directly into the walls. I like how, on sunny mornings, the sun lands gently at the foot of my bed, so the room lights up slowly instead of striking me straight in the eyes. I like that I live above convenience stores and coffee shops, and how there’s a taxi rank right outside. This is a good little life I’ve got here, and to ask for anything more would just be indulgence.

For a more kinetic, detailed look at my apartment, you can watch a short video here:

Empirical Impressions

I’ve been out and mobile in Sejong for a little over a month now. A bit longer if you count the quarantine. I am still quite new to this part of the world, but I thought it might be interesting to jot down some of my initial impressions about the place. Perhaps in a year or so I can revisit my opinions to see how much they have changed, and how many observations about the city I got totally wrong. But for now, this is what I have observed:

In many ways, Sejong is exactly like Las Vegas: It’s quite small, there are a lot of flashing lights, and all the action seems to be located along just one main road. Gambling is illegal here though, so the comparison might not be perfect. But it is true that the entire geography of my life these days covers only a handful of kilometers along a single road. To get to school in the mornings, I take a bus down the road for three stops. To get out of town, I take the bus up the road for twenty minutes until the route terminates at the train station. I’m not quite sure yet what else there is around these parts. It’s also fairly humdrum and cold here. I suspect that Vegas is not cold. Maybe things here will heat up. Maybe. All I’ve known so far is the cold, and empirically speaking that’s the only weather this place has to offer. I would like it to get hotter. As hot as Vegas, I hope, for the sake of this comparison.

The landscape of Sejong is interlaced with beautiful running paths that carry on for miles, running parallel with rivers and lakes. The branches on the trees are leafless and brittle, and the grass is dry and dead. But that’s just Sejong, empirically speaking. These running paths are sunken below the level of the roads, so that you can run without noise and traffic in your immediate periphery. I say running paths, because that’s what I use them for, but I think they’re mostly intended for cyclists and walkers. I do like the buildings here though. You don’t need a Wikipedia page to tell you that Sejong is new. Just look at the skyline and the architecture will say it all. Some of the towers are so shiny they look blue!

New library; old, dead grass.

The newness is also subtle. The benches at the bus stop are heated. There is a fascinating waste disposal infrastructure built into the city very much like a sewer system. The Bus Rapid Transit system is flawless, allowing me to get around quickly. I feel like there is a lot of convenience in my life now that I’m taking totally for granted because of how subtle it is.

There are a lot of coffee shops and restaurants dotted around the place. This is nothing novel. I’ve seen other parts of Korea, and coffee shops and eateries are as common as casinos in Las Vegas. What feels different here, though, is the relative scarcity of English typography, or restaurants with more western offerings. This is not a bad thing. I am in Korea, after all. But when I walk around my neighbourhood I feel like there aren’t many places for me to lock my attention onto. Of course there are the usual chain stores – Olive Young and Mega Coffee and CU convenience stores – but not that many places for socializing.

Sejong contains foreigners. I really cannot say how many, but I think there are a fair amount of us. I don’t know where to meet any of these people, though. I suspect that it might be at the Lake Park, which is a lake at the center of a park, which is about a 20-minute walk from my apartment. Lake Park is gorgeous and serene. There are walkways all about, bicycles for rent, and little strips of artificial beach along parts of the water. There are also pavilions and coffee shops around the place to simply sit and watch the world go by. It’s truly idyllic, and I imagine that this is the place where most Sejongers come to spend their Sundays. Sadly, the park gets uncomfortably cold in the evenings, and a miserable wind blows through the place. But that’s Sejong for you.

I find myself juxtaposing Sejong with Busan quite often. This is understandable, since I have lived in both of these places. In many ways, Busan is a lot like Las Vegas too because there is a casino there.

Juxtaposing Sejong and Busan gives me the impression that the Korean people in Sejong are exceptionally friendly. That’s not to say that the Koreans in Busan aren’t nice, but I feel like the people in Sejong are more patient, and take more time to help out foreigners. I like that about Sejong.

Sejong is also quiet, almost hauntingly so, compared to Busan. At first I thought this was due to the cold weather, or the alarming covid rates, but there’s no denying that the streets of Sejong aren’t nearly as densely populated as other parts of the country. There’s still traffic, but everything feels calm.

Overall, there’s nothing in Sejong that leaps out and grabs your attention. It doesn’t seem as if the city is especially bothered about drawing attention to itself. Instead, it seems like a city that just wants to get on with it. In some ways, Sejong is also a lot like Nebraska, because it’s not for everyone. But for now it’s perfect for me. I, too, just want to get on with it, and it’s nice to do that in a place that doesn’t expect anything more from me.

The jagged teeth of Sejong’s skyline.

A Million Baby Lifetimes

There is a concept that goes like this: the older you are, the faster time moves. The best way I can make sense of this is to think of a baby that’s one day old. Everything it has ever experienced in the entirety of its existence has happened in the past twenty-four hours. In one more day, that baby’s lifespan will have doubled. That second day would, literally, feel like a lifetime to that baby. The older that baby gets, the shorter a single day will feel to it.

Now let’s look at me: For me to relive my entire life over again, I would need to wait 34-and-a-half more years. That’s a long time to wait. That’s like, 12 000 day-old baby lifetimes! Or, to put it another way, everything that day-old baby has ever seen, heard, and screamed at accounts for only 1/12000th of everything I have ever seen, heard, and screamed at, which is a silly way to count time. At this point, I am not counting time in increments of 1/12000ths of my life. These days I look at things in terms of years (or 365 baby lifetimes), and even the years seem to be blur together sometimes.

This is not an original concept. It’s an idea I heard about some time ago, and I’ve made no attempt to further research it while writing this blog. So I might be terribly wrong about all of this. But my main takeaway from this idea is how sad it all is. It’s as if the older we get, the faster we accelerate towards the end of our lives. It also means that the value of each day is constantly decreasing. It’s a bleak thought. I miss the days when summer holidays would last for ever, because the truth was, they would drag on for a good portion of my life.

I had reluctantly accepted this somber fact of physics until earlier this week when I found myself standing in the middle of the gym, watching the clock, waiting for all of this to become routine. I am new to my job, to my city, and to this current life. Without effort, I can recall how many days I have been existing here. It’s not many. Every day, I have to make a conscious effort figure out how to navigate this new world, and it’s exhausting. I am hyper-aware of the minutes and the hours. My day is split into minuscule parts, each of which requires my full attention. A week feels like a month. A month, currently, is almost unfathomable.

As exhausting as all this is, there is an upside. Everything has slowed down substantially. Last weekend went on forever. I can leisurely complete all the task on my to-do list. I don’t feel rushed. The coming year feels like it’s going to last a decade. My perception of time has slowed down, which means that, from a subjective point of view, I’ve added a significant amount of time to my life.

I don’t want to die. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that you feel the same way. This is a thought that I obsess over quite regularly. If I were offered the chance of becoming immortal, I would take it (depending on the terms of the immortality of course, but that’s a discussion for another time). So there is a part of me that gets progressively sadder with each passing year, and my aging body serves as a reminder of what’s to come. But while I watched that clock in the gym, ticking away one second every perceived minute, it occurred to me that I might have found a way to prolong my life. All I need to do is start afresh every time things seem to be moving too fast. If I can enter a whole new world ever couple of years, I will become like that day-old baby, processing lifetimes in day-long chunks. It’s not a perfect solution; objectively it won’t give me any more time. But at the end of my life I will feel like I have lived a hundred lifetimes (or 1 200 000 baby lifetimes).

It’s My Heritage

For one bright shining moment, I thought magnets would solve all my problems. It was Christmas Eve, and I was in an anxious spiral trying to buy gifts for my friends. At Christmas, for those who celebrate, we want to to show our loved ones just how much they mean to us. But it’s impossible sometimes to distill that feeling down to just one object. On top of that, I had left my gift-buying until the last day, and I was beginning to fall apart somewhat. I was seeing Kelly-Ann that night, and over the next few days I would be seeing Michelle and Sam as well. These three women are some of my oldest and dearest friends. They are the family that I chose, and they mean the world to me. I had already bought them something simple, but I also wanted gifts that would shine a light on their unique qualities and communicate how deeply I love them, while at the same time being ultra cheap and all acquirable in the same place. Magnets, I’d decided, would do just that. I would find a photography store and print out a set of magnets with photos of all of us on them. Now they’ll see what a great friend I really am, I thought to myself. They’ll see. They’ll all see!

The thing about photography though, is that it’s all online these days. Stores that actually print out photographs aren’t as common as they used to be, so I had to drive around a bit to find one. There was a Kodak store in a shopping center which was about thirty minutes away from where I lived. It seemed like my best bet. What with it being Christmas Eve and all, I feared long lines and claustrophobic crowds, but when I stepped into the Kodak I found it pleasantly empty. A saleswoman approached and offered assistance.

“Do you print photos onto magnets?” I asked. The woman bit her lip and looked at the wall behind her. It was decorated with a collection of cute printing gifts that the store offered. There were coasters and mugs and keychains. I didn’t see magnets.

“I think we’re out of magnets. Let me just check.” She took two steps towards the back room and then hollered at the doorway. “Hey, Bertie! Do we have anymore magnets?”

There was some scuffling from within, and then a man’s voice bounced back: “Our magnets are finished!”

The woman swung back to me. “We’re out of magnets,” she declared.

I nodded at this information, as if it was what I had expected all along. The reality was that I had put all my eggs in the magnet basket, and Bertie from the Back Room had stomped on every last one of them. But, being a human person, I did not want to appear vulnerable to a stranger, so I shrugged and tried to invent a Plan B even as my vocal cords were strumming themselves to life.

“And what about mugs?” I enquired, eyeing the wall of trinkets behind her like I was Keyser Söze. “Can you print a photo on one of those?”

“Yes, we still have mugs,” said the woman.

Now that I had started down this road I was beginning to have my doubts. A mug could surely make a good gift, but I didn’t think they were the best presents for Sam and Kelly-Ann and Michelle. They already had coffee mugs that they liked, or their cupboards were already full, or they were cultivating an aesthetic in their apartment that would clash with a novelty mug. But here I was, pretending that I was in the market for some.

“And how much do they cost?”

The saleswoman named a price that wasn’t exorbitant, but paying that price three times over would make a dent in my budget that I wasn’t comfortable with at that point in time.

And then, for reasons that I still can’t quite figure out, I said, “Okay, I’ll take one mug, please.” I had no idea what I was doing. Who would I give it to? Kelly-Ann, maybe, since she was the person I would be seeing first. But I wasn’t sure if she would really want it. And as for Sam and Michelle, well, I supposed I could figure something out for them another day. I felt like the problem of the Christmas gifts was only getting more complicated.

I had already selected a few photos that I wanted printed out, but now that I was getting only a single mug, I opted for a picture of the four of us that had been taken on Heritage day a few months earlier. In the photos, we’re standing outside Sam’s house, against a white wall. I’m on the left, with my right leg thrown up as if I’m in mid-can-can, with Kelly-Ann, on the right, holding onto my foot to keep it aloft. There is a very specific reason for this pose. In the way of many in-jokes among friends, certain moments and ideas had bubbled together in a concoction of eye-watering hilarity, and this was the result: Heritage Day had long ago become synonymous with an elevated leg. This, along with the phrase, “It’s my heritage,” had long been a symbol of our friendship.

The saleswoman copied my Heritage Day photo onto a computer, and then guided me over to the register. I paid my money, still wondering why I was buying one mug, and when she handed me my receipt she said, “You can collect it on Tuesday.” This last bit I had not anticipated. I had initially expected to leave the store with magnets, had modified that expectation to one mug, and now I was leaving with nothing. Definitely the worst possible outcome. It was Friday. Tuesday was four days away.

Christmas came and went, and it was lovely. Kelly-Ann liked the simple gift I had gotten for her, as did Sam and Michelle. We’ve all known each other a long time, and I was reassured to see that we don’t place any judgement on the quality of the gifts we give each other. We know the love is there all the same.

I kind of forgot about the mug after that. I didn’t want to drive out all that way just to collect something that I didn’t know what to do with. Christmas was over, and all the presents had been given. Why should I suddenly give a mug to only one out of my three friends? Since it had our photos on it, I couldn’t very well give it to someone outside of our group. I thought about keeping it, but I didn’t quite want it either. I already had a perfectly good mug. It was one that my friends had given me for my birthday only a few months prior. It was a portrait of the singer Cher, and underneath it were the words “It’s my heritage.”

Really, it’s an important phrase in our friendship.

We entered the New Year, and I had kind of forgotten about the mug. Surely I wasn’t the only person who didn’t collect their novelty printed mug after the holiday season had passed? Surely they would have thrown it out by now? But then in early January another friend of mine requested a coffee date, and the most convenient location for the both of us was the mall where the Kodak shop was located. We had coffee, and afterwards my curiosity dragged me back to the photography store. Maybe it would still be there.

Once again, the place was practically deserted. I approached a man who was sitting idly behind the counter. Perhaps this was Bertie.

“I had a photo printed onto a mug here a few weeks ago,” I said. “I’ve just been too busy to pick it up. I’ll understand if you don’t have it, but I just thought I’d check.” I followed the man’s gaze as he turned to survey the counter behind him. It was utterly barren, save for one small package wrapped up in bubble wrap. Through the bubbly plastic I was just able to discern what looked like a human leg being held horizontally. All this time, it had been sitting there, in full view of the gawking public. The man didn’t ask me for any proof of purchase. He just handed it over. If necessary, I suppose he could have matched the photo on the mug to my face. But then again, who would steal a mug with a photo of someone else on it?

Now that I had my mug in hand, I had an even bigger problem. At least when it was still on the counter at the photography store, it was someone else’s burden. But now I had to find something to do with it. I didn’t want to throw it away. It was a perfectly good mug. Besides, there was something unsettling about throwing away a picture of some of your dearest friends. It felt like bad luck. For weeks I kept it in my room, still in its bubble wrap. I feel like I could have ignored it forever, but with the arrival of February I was facing a new chapter in my life. I was going to Korea, and I had to begin packing up all my possessions.

The solution, when it finally presented itself, was an obvious one: I would take the mug to Korea with me. Sure, I already had my Cher mug, but I was beginning to feel the pressing desire to keep my friends with me at all times, and what better way than with a mug? It was already bubble wrapped, so I could put it directly into my suitcase.

This is the first cup of coffee I made for myself in Korea.

In the end it appears as if I tricked myself into buying my own printed mug. In my apartment in Korea I alternate between mugs, so that I get to see Sam and Kelly-Ann and Michelle often. Upon reflection I think it really does make a good gift, because at the end of the day, all I really want for Christmas is to have these wonderful people in my life. Sam knows this, Michelle knows this, and Kelly-Ann knows this, because for Christmas she bought me a set of personalized magnets.

This is what I see every day before leaving my apartment.