Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Music

I am sitting in the basement of a bar with no name. The sign outside says All Kind of Old Music, but after living in Seoul for three months this grammatical error does not faze me. I am saddled up at the bar, staring at a wall covered by seemingly endless shelves of vinyl records. I try to count the number of records in one shelf, but my vision in a little hazy and the cases are worn and damaged by love, so they sort of blend together. “How many records?” I ask. I have learned to drop the superfluous parts of my speech in this bar. Mr. Kim takes a long drag of his cigarette and thinks for a moment, no doubt searching his mind for the correct number in English, not for the information itself. “Five thousand,” he says, gesturing to the collection. “This is my history. This is my life.”

I know what he means. Music has shaped every stage of my life for better or worse. It is no accident that as the quality of my life improves, so does my music collection. 

During these years abroad my relationship with music has evolved in two ostensibly opposing ways. First, I have been exposed to more pop music than I ever imagined possible. In Bulgaria American top 40 hits were blaring out of every TV screen I encountered. Whether it be a cafĂ© full of teenagers or a restaurant full of pensioners, everyone was subjected to equal amounts of Akon. Even worse than this was Bulgarian pop music itself, known as Chalga. This “music,” which is essentially just a Serbian beat layered with the wailing and strained vocals of some amateur porn star, was looked down upon even by Bulgarians, a people who still consider Scorpion cutting edge. And yet, I couldn’t escape it. Those were my two choices for background noise at every event I attended outside of my apartment for 27 months. That does something to a person. I’m not sure what, but I’m nervous to find out.

Here in Korea pop music also reigns, but while most teenagers are vaguely aware of American pop stars, they are much more interested in their own idols, the Gods and Goddesses of Korean Pop, or K-Pop. K-Pop stars are not unlike the American pop stars of the 90’s. They consist mostly of attractive girl groups and boy bands dancing in unison and singing repetitive simple songs that teenagers find relatable. The difference, perhaps, is more in the cultural subtleties. I was talking to a friend who has lived here for over a year and he told me that at the heart of every K-Pop song is a good girl who wants to be bad. I could offer up volumes about what I think that means, but I’ve written enough about culture for the time being.

This is all to say that at one end of the extreme for the past two and half years I have been oppressed by music and subjected to songs that have been, like life, nasty, brutish, and short. At the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the digital era and my copious amounts of free time have combined to provide me with the musical education I always dreamed of. I have spent countless hours on various music sites finding new artists and researching older tracks, and even more time stuck on trains listening to deep cuts. I have learned to talk about music, to identify what I like and don’t like about songs, groups, and genres. I have also met amazingly diverse people who have made me appreciate the value in such far reaching genres as Metal, Trance, and even Tuvan Throat Singing. And now I have Mr. Kim.

“Do you know the name of this bar?” Mr. Kim asks. I flash him a cautious smile, “All Kind of Old Music?” I answer. He erupts in laughter. “You think this is name of bar?! That is just the sign! The name is Two Wagon Wheel!” he says, pointing to the two wheels affixed to the opposite wall inside the bar. ‘Obviously.’ I think.  Mr. Kim and his friends are still cracking up about my ridiculous assumption when he says in his charming stacatto way, “Okay. Jane. I have song for you.” After unsuccessfully attempting to pronounce my name several times Mr. Kim and I have settled on calling me Jane.  I am still trying to make out the titles on the sides of the records when a familiar beat sweeps over the bar. I look at Mr. Kim and wide smiles break out across both our faces. Lou Reeds unmistakeable voice is singing "Sweet Jane" in the background as I lean over to Mr. Kim and say, "So, tell me more about your history."

Mr. Kim and "The Silver Fox" at All Kind of Old Music

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Drinking

Last weekend I ended up at an "all you can drink" event at a bar here in Seoul. The bar was actually pretty decent, the night started with a line up of local Korean bands, (one of which I swear is the new Korean version of Heart) and ended with a decent alternative DJ set. "All you can drink", however, is never without its share of mishaps. One of my friends lost her wallet, jacket, and one of her shoes. Another fell of the stage, hit his head, and passed out in a chair. I managed to get an entire beer poured on me by a close friend. But all and all, it wasn't a bad night. This is probably because the words 'all you can drink' don't ignite the same kind of desperate frenzy in people my age that they used to. In fact, when I tried to remember the last time I had attended an "all you can drink" event I initially drew a blank. But then, like a wave a nausea, it all came back to me.

When I was eighteen I was a freshman at San Diego State University and frequently made trips to nearby Tijuana to get sloppy drunk with my like-minded peers. After begging someone to drive their car across the boarder, and going through what I recall in 2000 was a very minor security check, we stumbled in chunky platform sandals and flared jeans down a series of sketchy back alley looking streets, past depressing families with small children selling chiclets, and on to the main drag that was home to our common destination: Safari.

Safari was a club that offered 'all you can drink all night' with a five dollar cover. Once inside, we found ourselves in a post-apocalyptic nightmare of a room, walls adorned with a series of amature murals of bart simpson and speedy gonzales, and every conceivable surface covered in a thick sticky substance that I could only guess was a combination of kamikazes, vomit, and tears. Walk through this room and we arrived in a larger open space used as a dance floor. A thin rickety metal staircase led up to an elevated observatory type walkway, held together by thin mental rods and used primarily for co-eds to practice their pole dancing moves.  None of this deterred us from returning week after week however, because as I mentioned,  it was five dollars ALL YOU CAN DRINK. We felt like we had our fingers on the pulse of the coolest party in the world and we delighted in ordering every cocktail and shot we had ever heard of. I'm sure I would have continued in this grand tradition until the day I turned 21 if it hadn't have been for this one night that changed everything.

It started out like any other night, with a plan to go to TJ (as we lovingly Americanized it) with a group of girls from our dorm. One of the girls brought a friend from her high school who loved to party and was approximately 6'1" and 375 pounds. I vaguely remember her being mildly obnoxious and taking plenty of pre-bar shots in our room, but didn't think anything of it. We had been in Safari for all of 30 minutes when a frantic brunette with chunky blond highlights found me and told me to come to the bathroom quick.

Her high school friend had apparently taken several more shots and was now passed out, sitting against a wall on the floor of the bathroom, puking on herself. There was no waking or moving her, and as we stood there trying to figure out what to do, I saw the bathroom attendent, a sober Mexican woman in her 40's, take a cup of water and pour it down this passed out girls front side, effectively washing the vomit off of her and on to the tile floor where it circled into a nearby drain. The attendant looked unfazed. For me, this was a moment of clarity. I walked back out into the club and viewed it for the first time with fresh eyes.

Aggressive predatory men were circling around girls who could barely stand, flushed 19 year olds were gyrating against 40 year old men whose faces they had probably never seen. The overworked bartender was servicing condescending frat guys who called out derogatory names when their drinks took too long. It felt like all of this was happening aroud me in slow motion and suddenly everyone seemed to melt into each other, into some primordial blob of terror.

I started to cry, as I often did in those days, but this only turned out to be a victims call, and men quickly swooped in to comfort me. "Hey baby whats wrong?" they asked. "Nothing." I said. "Look I just want to help," they persisted. "Just please leave me alone!" I screamed. "Whatever you fucking bitch!"

I managed to find my friend Taylor a little later and tried to tell her about my recent, if not overly dramatic, revelation: "We are in hell!" I managed to croak out through sobs. "This here, this very bar, this is hell on earth!" She looked at me with the blank eyes of a blacked out teenager and I let out a sigh of defeat. Something told me I should document the moment, so I reached for my kodak disposable camera, wound the film, and told Taylor to smile. Just then a familiar beat came over the sound system and a wave of excited screams ripped through the crowd. Girls started running towards the dance floor. Apparently, I thought, they play the Thong Song in hell. 

So that wasn't exactly about travel or Korea huh? And if you're looking for some sort of moral or summary of what I've learned about humanity here at the end, you won't find one. To be fair this blog comes with a disclaimer that I myself don't even understand it. It should be obvious, however, that I eventually managed to escape hell, but not without this gem of a photograph:

And ten years later I still live on to 'all you can drink' another day...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Culture

Anyone with a liberal arts degree has heard their fair share of commentary on culture. Culture is the lens through which we view the world, culture is our foundation, culture is what we share. During the course of a higher education cultural identity and cultural diversities are examined, compared, and analyzed to an almost perverse degree, and yet, at the end of it most graduates still struggle to produce an accurate definition of the word.

This is of course because, as most social scientists will delight in explaining, culture is ubiquitous. Ahh yes, Ubiquitous. I remember this $10,000 word being a favorite among my university professors, and I always viewed it as a cop out. Whenever that word was applied they seemed to be defining something so vast and complicated that a simple definition didn’t exist. It seemed counter intuitive that with this one word their problems were solved- What is art? Art is ubiquitous. What is God? God is ubiquitous. What is culture? Culture is ubiquitous.

My semantic frustrations aside, if culture really is ubiquitous then attempting to understand it in a university setting should be nearly impossible. With the vast majority of students pursuing their degrees in the same country, if not the same community where they were raised, how could they possibly be expected to grasp what role culture plays in their lives? It’s UBIQUITOUS after all, there’s no escaping it.

This paradoxical situation is what sends so many students and recent graduates on grand adventures abroad. They leave their communities, their loves ones and their safety zones behind in search of some new experience or culture they can’t even conceive of yet but are sure exists and has something to teach them. Surely this commitment, this bravery will be rewarded with, at the very least, a better understanding of  different cultures. Well….maybe.

The ugly truth is you bring your culture with you wherever you go, and the culturally hungry traveler comes face to face with it in ways they never expected. In my experience my culture usually rears its ugly head on trains. In Bulgaria citizens have a deep seeded fear for something called the “Techene”, which, put quite simply, is a “cross breeze”. This means that if you are ever in a car you can have exactly one window open at a time, and even that is pushing it if there are old people or babies in tow. I’m sure this fear was born in history when rough winds could literally carry disease from one plague torn town to another, but last time I checked, science has come a long way in the last 500 years, I mean we discovered a vaccine for polio for christs sake, but try explaining that to a Bulgarian grandmother and her grandson riding together on a train. One 90 degree day I was stuck in a train compartment with these very two passengers, no air conditioning of course, and I opened our shared window. The grandma stood up and closed it. I stood up and opened it again, and tried to explain that it was too hot for this foolishness.  She looked at me completely bewildered and started screaming and pleading, waving to her grandson. My Bulgarian is awful, but I’m pretty sure she was saying something to the affect of “you are trying to kill my grandson!” Everyone else in the compartment stared at me with disgust. Busted. Culture Fail.

Here in Korea things are a lot more logical, but almost to a disturbing degree, Koreans may be well on their way to taking the humanity out of the daily commute altogether. Recently when someone accidentally bumped into me with great force boarding the metro I let out a little involuntary noise and starred at my assailant, waiting for some sort of apology by way of a word or at least a kind glance. None came. People don’t apologize for such things here. There must be some sort of line, like say if I had been physically knocked down and broken my nose, blood gushing out and pooling on the floor, perhaps then they would  turn to see if I was okay, but I wouldn’t count on it.

People don’t really talk on the metro at all, not even to their children. It’s as if everyone is just trying to get through the hell of their daily travel with as little trouble as possible, and they all understand that silence is the best way to do that. Babies don’t cry. I’m not exaggerating. This is a city of ten million people where women are rarely on birth control and most people don’t own cars, and yet over these past three months, I have heard maybe three babies total cry on the train. Perhaps even more troubling than the absent voices of small children is the fact that if one child does pierce the silence with a wail or if say, a drunk elderly man does the same, people around him don’t react. Their face muscles don’t even twitch. It seems Koreans have collectively agreed that if they ignore it, it doesn’t exist, and they are getting closer and closer to the truth with that one every day. 

I’m now discovering that the danger with being a cultural interloper is not that you take your culture with you wherever you go, but that eventually pieces of those other cultures rub off on you, and you don’t get to choose which ones. Last week I saw a teenager nervously eating a bagel sitting across from me on the train. People don’t talk and people certainly don’t eat on the metro. I felt embarrassed for her. On this mornings commute I saw a girl in front of me bounding down the stairs with wet hair. Bulgarians do not leave the house with wet hair for fear of catching their death. I found my self thinking, “Her mother let her leave the house like that?!”  It was then that I came up with my own definition of culture:

Culture: A set of agreed upon neuroses shared by a group of people

Okay it’s not ubiquitous, but I think I’m getting closer.