It was a big spewing mass of hot air whose only desire was to whip people into a frenzy worrying about society’s destruction.  It downed trees, destroyed signs, and shattered homes—and this wasn’t even the Republican National Convention.

Known as a typhoon in Asia, the biggest hurricane to hit Korea in ten years was certainly a force, but in the end it didn’t flood the city, capsize ships or shatter storefronts.  The anticipation was far greater.  I can morbidly admit that I was tepidly awaiting Korea’s storm of the century–my first big storm.  The wait cracked the nerves of many expats, and the tumultuous buildup from foreigner internet searches may have been the storm itself as English teachers nationwide hit the social media front en masse to bitch about their school’s hurricane policies.  Maybe unfairly, many schools required teachers to report to school while their students stayed at home.

Massive cyclone coming your way?

Get back to work!

This is hard-working Korea, after all.

But Typhoon Bolaven turned out to actually be kind of a big deal.  It killed a few at sea, canceled school, bitch-slapped signs off of their buildings, and disrupted ports nationwide.  It abused and uprooted trees deciduous and tropical, painting the streets green as if trimmings from a great celestial lawn had been poured out all over the city.  It would have been foolish to step outside during the storm itself, which was either a CAT-1 or a tropical storm depending on the news source, and with the exception of a few cash-strapped cabbies masquerading as heros to foolish pedestrians, everybody stayed inside.  (They always say downgraded to a tropical storm don’t they–as if flying debris and massive wavebreaks were small potatoes?)

Cleanup, aisle everything!

Still, hours after the storm broke this morning, many of the power lines around town were smarting from the stress of being pulled to-and-fro for the past 24 hours.  Walking under the painfully buzzing power lines was slightly sketchy going before I found my courage, and as I walked to work my mind wandered to Montana’s version of the unfulfilled old-school college basketball star and potential NBA star Wayne Estes.  Wayne was an all-around hero who approached the scene of a traffic accident, only to die from a downed power line.  (I’m sympathetic to the promising Boston Celtics Len Bias story, but Estes’ comes more from pure heroism instead of the youthful “he made a deadly mistake” category).  Being from Montana, I’m no gumshoe to huge winds, and I want to fondly un-remember driving out of Great Falls, MT (one of America’s windiest places)  during their blustery winter.  Many who hit the skil hills of Bridger Bowl, MT have also been privy to some scary moments on the once-archaic ski lifts during heavy winds, but this typhoon was still some pretty serious stuff.  The rain and winds knocked out power for somewhere from three-quarters-of-a-million people to 1.7 million South Koreans this morning, with nearly 3/4 of this restored already.

Please tell me dude from Gangnam Style was under there.

My friends’ lights also went off here in Yeosu, paradoxically inciting poor-me complaints on facebook about their powerless situation using their computer batteries.  Many of my students lost electricity too, and companies at the massive Yeosu industrial complex also experienced some power outages.  But I wouldn’t have known–my typhoon party consisted of passing out through most of the howling winds after eating too much ice cream.  (I remember  a similar cold treat-related stupor from high school in Montana when I missed the cosmic clap of an Air Force jet waking up the whole town at 4AM with a sonic boom.)

There’s something about a typhoon that screams otherness as the wind batters your window.  My Dad sometimes tells me about his time aboard a naval troop transport vessel that encountered a typhoon in the Pacific.  He spent three hellish days and nights climbing up and dropping off of 60 foot waves in the South Pacific during a particularly wretched storm in his WWII Navy days. (Yes, my Father was in WWII…pretty sweet).  

Bud Lilly: not a big supporter of this whole Typhoon program.

“Typhoon” almost sounds averse, like it’s a more brutal, alchemistic oriental storm that we’ll never understand, as mysterious to westerners as Cantonese calligraphy. I prefer to say “hurricane” because it carries the weight of American survival, but I’m a phony on that front.  I won’t play survivor here–there’s even a guy from Mississippi who lives in Yeosu that did house-to-houses after Katrina.  Pulling through Typhoon Bolaven and getting your “I survived Bolaven” t-shirt is like playing Dance, Dance, Revolution with Justin Bieber and claiming you 69ed the living shit out of Rihanna.

Love the way you lie … about your high score

Despite some Chinese fishermen being lost at sea south of Yeosu around Jeju island, things proceeded pretty regularly in my city after all.  Typhoon Bolaven didn’t inspire any roof rescues or survivalist scrounging tactics, but a  few sandbags placed in front of doors and “X” shapes slapped on windows with tape for good measure.  Other than this, people went about their business pre-hurricane with a calm disposition that made me think that people in Yeosu were either extremely cool about the whole impending superstorm, or supremely unprepared.

Bolaven lashes Jeju-do, Korea

The big one was coming, but I still had to shimmy in a quick pre-storm lift session.  As the rain started to spit outside, I realized I had forgotten my umbrella for the biggest rain and gust blasts of the decade.  Typical.  I entered the gym as the wind’s screams began the storm’s slow crescendo , leading me to expect a city’s populace ready for a storm, a city hunkered down ready for the big one.  Entering the main room of the fitness club was Yeosu unfolding along the predictable line of daily habits, and I found nothing out of the ordinary.  Inside, pudgy middle-aged women shamelessly wore their bikinis and spandex bell-bottoms to their dance classes.  After finishing their bizarre knee-circles, middle-aged Korean men continued to push through their pitiable quarter-bench presses and smith-machine half-squats with self-satisfied peacocking.

The sideways rain and screw-you wind came soon after I departed the gym at 10PM.  The media had reminded us to stock up on batteries and food to prepare for the worst; before the storm became full-grown, I couldn’t help but make my way through a half -cylinder of Korean-style Cheetos just in case I needed to bulk up for a post-apocalypse winter.  Guess I don’t deserve to be an end-of-world Cormac McCarthy-esque group leader after all.

Too much Soju for this guy.

As the unyielding winds hit their forte I peered through the windows like a has-been ringman sits in his basement watching his boy box on a black-and-white TV.  I pretended to be outwardly disinterested in the storm’s wrath–and the fight’s outcome–win or lose.  The winds seemed burly, but I passed out eventually with confidence that I wouldn’t end up having to loot a liquor store for Combos snacks and bottle of some strong Black Velvet hwisky tomorrow.

Or hopefully I would?

Slept through this.

Typhoon Bolaven  threw a series of combinations, put Yeosu on the ropes, but it didn’t knock us out.

It’s the next day.  Here in Yeosu life continues normally.  Walking to work today was a lesson in balance.  Even though the rain subsided, residual wind gusts punished trees throughout the morning, stretching them back sideways by a little, then a lot, blowing broken car and apartment window shards and fluorescent light bits in all directions.  At a leaf-strewn crosswalk, the half empty roads draw an eery silence to an otherwise dodged bullet of a storm. 

A traffic light is out, causing chaos instead of cooperation among Korean motorists.  A few speeders nearly rear-end each other at the defunct light.  Soon after, a bus barely avoids decapitating a Korean luxury coupe, and the others sit confused, honking about what the hell  to do next.  As I attempt to cross the street Frogger-style I realize my life is in my precious feet just like any other time, just like any other day crossing the street here.  Things may have already returned to normal.

T.I.K.

This is Korea after all.

Some final takeaways

Taxidermied beasts captured from the pristine waters around the Yeosu Industrial Complex

  • Like a student cracking the books all night before final exams, Yeosu’s infrastructure advanced like, 15 years in preparation since they won the bid to be on the world’s stage in 2007.  Linking Yeosu and the nearby city of Gwangyang is now one of the world’s longest and tallest bridges, and it’s made entirely of Korean commodities.

Suicide free since May!

  • There’s also new bullet trains that take you to Seoul in half the time, a new bus terminal, shiny highways in and out of town (many somehow completed just in time for the Expo with Jeollanam-do sorcery), as well as several new high rise apartment complexes.  Some of these were built on top of the villages where mostly agrarian seniors happily lived out their days in traditional Korean houses.  There are also rumors that some of the apartments were also purported to be built on the grounds of uprooted cemeteries, another unconfirmed possibility–but since Koreans bury their dead on the hills around Yeosu and there just happens to be a whole gang of new developments on these hills it could be a culminating coda.  Shoot, maybe they were just protesting the weather.  Still, I know what I saw last summer when I was on a bus near the Expo site under construction:  senior citizens had set up tents and were having a sit-in protesting with bullhorns, loud cymbals, the whole 9.  Busloads of police were there, unsurprisingly this was not commented on by the local media.  Were Mom and Pop kicked out of their homes in the name of K-Pop?

You know who that is on the screen…Oppa gangnam sty-SHADDUP

  • The harsh truth is early in the summer organizers realized they weren’t going to hit their attendance expectations so they must have utilized a few economics charts to see what they could do to bump up attendance, resulting in lower entrance prices.  It reminded me of when my buddies Todd, Will, and I used to scalp tickets and had too many non-paired seats remaining just 20 minutes before game time.  What was once Expo season passes purchased for around KRW200,000 (compelling you to go at least 7 times in the summer to justify buying a pass) became KRW10,000 apiece—less than ten bucks to get in.  Glad I didn’t pony up the dough for that grift.
  • I foresee demolition crews stocked full of people from Seoul or other countries entirely and Yeosu failing to recoup any of the benefits of local job creation.  Even now the final economic impact of the Expo on the Yeosu economy may be anything but a boon—I spoke to plenty of people who didn’t even want to deal with the Yeosu traffic gangbang so they did the park-n-ride thing—they stopped up the road and across bridges in nearby cities like Suncheon and Gwangyang to take buses and trains to the Yeosu Expo, effectively cutting Yeosu out of the residual spending picture.  The same thing happened in London, where Games enthusiasts avoided downtown London almost entirely, sticking to Olympic park out of fear of being stuck in a sea of cars and people.
  • We’ll see when the final economic numbers are released for the city, but I foresee tax bombs for Yeosu akin to when an Olympics leaves town.  The numbers will show that the Expo ran a train on Yeosu and left us with ripped pantyhose, mascara tears, and a new rash with no change for a cab to Planned Parenthood.

Keep the change, ya filthy animal.

  • Likely due to sticker shock from the Expo bill, budget shortfalls have already forced the city to address the crisis, and it’s being done in predictably Korean ways.  Despite most of Yeosu’s students speaking English far worse than even Short Round (from Indiana Jones 80s racism infamy) some of my friends won’t be returning to their jobs at the end of their contracts. According to a few teachers here, several public schools have canceled their Native English Teacher programs so they can trim the fat.  One teacher discovered his fate by doing his own sleuthing. In an online conversation with a Yeosu teacher named Trent, (changed for anonymity) he says, “I found out via someone from outside the school who knew someone I worked with.  At no point was I ever told by my school that I didn’t have a job going forward.  Had I not figured it out myself I might have been left to assume i had a job right up until the last day.”  And this is the life teachers live here, career futures forced into conjecture and assumption.  He continues, “Nobody is talking about getting NET’s (Native English Teachers) back into those schools once the budget has re-aligned. They’re probably figuring the overall budget for NET’s will be decreasing in the upcoming years anyway so why not get an early start.”

Time to find hagwon, Indy!

Retroactive Themes: “Environmental Charlatans” or, “It starts in your own back yard”

As a peninsula surrounded by busy freighter seaways and commercial fishing, Yeosu’s beaches naturally appeal to all things domestic and commerical that wash up from the waters, especially after storms.  Friends stepping on fishing hooks or swimming past baby diapers aren’t an everyday scene, but that really just has to happen once to ruin it right?  Locally, Koreans have their own remarkable brand of recycling.  I even went out to take pictures of the rubbish buildup on Yeosu’s waterfront one day, only to find that it had been cleaned up.

But then there’s this picture.

Hey, it could be mud right? Riiiiight?! (photo by Tyler Schroeder)

But why doesn’t the Expo stop patting themselves on the back for a successful summer of trumpeting global sea environmentalism for which the environmental impact cannot yet be ascertained?  Let’s look at the conditions of the ocean here in Yeosu first—many of us would love to be able to go swimming without catching a touch of the ole gastrointestinal hershey squirts.  I will say though that the layout of the Expo did look pretty sweet.  Still, what were the environmental practices and ecological footprint of making the first world’s fair recline over the water?  At the nearby Expo village that supplied housing for the staff and workers, only 4% of the energy was renewable.   It would seem that the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast” came at the cost of flat-topping and apple-coring several nearby hills to make a platform on a swamp which was turned into a massive parking lot.  That Yeosu beaches often have some of the grimiest water this side of Coney Island makes me more than a little skeptical of a supposedly green Expo that saw 8 million people come to a town slightly smaller than Spokane.

They call that a paradox.

But it was unforgettable

  • The DJ beach party spent convincing the Soviet girl wearing very little that I was an orphan from Kiev but “knew a few words” in her language and I had spent my life digging myself out of the gutter to become a stunt-car driver for Hyundai.  Really though, I’ve never been to an Ibiza or Goa beach party but everybody pretty much agreed the scene was amazingly similar to a full moon beach party in a more exotic locale, just sans drugs. (But was it worth it? Spent two hours walking back to town with fellow Yeosu teachers after we failed to win the cab battle after the party—nobody had the foresight to have a taxi company number).
  • Getting a drink poured on me by a Korean ex-girlfriend at the international bar that shares the same name as the douchy college bar in Missoula that I used to get drinks poured on me (for different reasons).  It’s name?  Bodega.
  • Having a nice mandate with my buddy Adrian who speaks Spanish and Italian.   We rode to the Expo on his new customized 800 CC hog.  (I wanted to cling to his chest hair but settled on holding onto the back of his bike). To get to the Expo site we slinked through a historic hand-picked tunnel the Japanese made the Koreans dig out during their methhead-mad conquest of the pacific that resulted in a 1910-1945 occupation.  My 100CC scooter was stolen months ago, so I asked him to oblige me in a little nostalgic horsepower demonstration by revving  his twin Vs near passing Hyundais; he obliged and shook the tunnel something proper,graciously petrifying passing motorists.   We skipped every pavilion line we could that day because he’s such a cunning linguist (GET IT?!  sorry).  We ate well in Argentina (as per the usual food experience at the Expo) got crunk on Philippine rum and Lithuanian lager, and  attempted to navigate the hordes of a K-Pop concert crowd before saying fuggit because that experience sucked, (I pretended not to be bummed to miss pre-packaged 20-year-olds writhing around in skin tight shit from a mile back).  We then went right outside the Expo gates to spend the rest of the night drinking and hobnobbing with the united colors of benetton at the international Bodega bar.
  • Krumping with the talented Amrita on the floating dance stage.  And by Krumping, I mean watching a pretty girl move around me in gyrations my Montana mind could vastly understand–similar to moving your hand in front of a strobe light–all while I pretended to belong there.
  • Igor, myself, and a few Expo dudes abscond with a few of the mascots as Yeosu Expo 2012  comes to a close…

Big Pipes and Big-Os

The Expo’s biggest architectural achievement wasn’t even a futuristic monolith borne from nothing, but a meeting of form and function of an existing pair of massively plain cement silos organically synced into a gorgeous harp-shaped organ that’s also the world’s loudest.

There’s an elevator to a viewing room at the top of the silos, but before you go up the glass elevators they take you through the inside of the hollowed out silo—it’s been converted to a ten story high multimedia cave and its more than a bit cool.  However, the Expo (and Korea) seem more pre-occupied with the flash of a huge circle on a platform that spits water and fire and uses a waterfall as a projection screen.  It is actually pretty tremendous, even if an entire oriental country is utterly naive to the fact that their international exposition’s pièce de résistance, their Flushing Meadows Globe, their Space Needle, their Eiffel Tower—is named after a woman’s orgasm.

The Big-O.  She’s a squirter!

But in the end it wasn’t the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast”, or the cultural performances, food, or even the Big-Orgasm that united the world, it was this.

Foot long…who’s got the footlong?!

Slow, expensive, but often delicious, the Expo knocked it out of the park on the food front.  Germany had great sausages and kraut, and amazing beers obviously.  Turkey had killer kebabs but a long wait.  In Uruguay the Koreans there speak Spanish in a unique Río de la Plata accent but the food is just ‘meh’ with a long wait, too.  Oo-shoo-guay did have a great place to drink outside the pavilion and watch the cosmetically-altered Expo staff from Seoul saunter by in their blue skirts.  Argentina had great empanadas and I heard Spain had an amazing tapas restaurant.  I didn’t make it in there but one of my elementary students told me the ambiance was top-notch. (Wha?!  The week before she didn’t even know how to ask to go to the bathroom…)

 

 

Each country handpicked their hottest people

Most of the Expo workers were young and beautiful, an almost unfair antithesis to the somewhat schlubby lot of us expat residents.  One afternoon on the beach this summer, I was a few minutes into some dumb observation before I  realized none of my female friends had been paying any attention to me at all.  People often say this, but their eyes really weren’t blinking and their mouths were agape.  Our pleasant scene of waves lapping onto the sand had changed into a barf-worthy acrobatics demonstration of a group of shredded, 8-packed Eastern-bloc dudes in Speedos wrestling in the sand, executing back flips, and generally knocking my self esteem down to negative a thousand.  The girls salivated while I took another sloppy swig of my tasteless Cass beer while making a mental note to get abs and learn how to execute a double layout into the sea.

Expos are actually pretty tight

If you can avoid the crowds.  You can spend your day watching cutting edge technology and cultural demonstrations weaved around a general global theme for that year, then eat great food or imbibe weird booze from countries you’ll never be able to spell before watching one of the world’s pre-eminent water, fire, and light shows.

The Swiss pavilion had the best overall experience, with cool light elements coming from the ceiling where you could use your hand as a projection screen for various scenes and images.  They also had a room with ice some 50,000 years old or something. (The Koreans seemed to be particularly enchanted by this.)  Some countries were simply travel brochures (Monaco) history lessons (the Netherlands, Italy) or tributes to their leader (the shameless Brunei).  Some countries didn’t even stick to the Expo’s theme: Lithuania’s was bugs trapped in amber (a la Jurassic Park) while India was chiefly a few grainy Bollywood movies before becoming a bazaar.  Their restaurant was a guy with a microwave.

But the biggest disappointment for many, especially food-wise, insofar as there wasn’t  any—was Mexico.  Where some less-prominent countries provided both entertainment and food, the third-most populated country in the Western Hemisphere was a guy blowing a conch shell at the beginning of a commercial.  We were sequestered in a small theater captive to a gorgeous, well-orchestrated piece of business propaganda—a tourism movie shot on the beaches of Mexico.  Yet somehow the stunning cinematography managed to disavow the presence of any beach barterers, homeless dog-tits flapping about, or behatted, fat, sunburned Americans like any respectable Mexican beach should have.

But Expos are also fuuuuggin’ annoying

Videos and more videos.  Russia makes you watch them break ice with a dumb ship.  Germany has you sit in some kind of Kryptonian crystal chamber to watch a childish animation about mining the sea floor.  I had warned people about this when I went the second time around.  Before we went into the German theater the announcer said she could answer one question in Korean and one in English.  Brenton (Cincy’s finest) piped up, “Can we just skip the movie and go the restaurant?”

“Oh my God, dude.”  Amrita said, turning her head.

“But it is our highlight!” the cute fräulein complained.

“I might die!” Brenton concluded in an amazing “I wonder where he’s from” plea.

You won’t be smiling after about 15 movies about ocean trash…

And I concurred. In the US pavilion, by the 40th time the video featuring a panoply of Americans of all shades, sizes, and ages brashly but hopefully exclaim, “this is my ocean!” I wanted to smash a flaming oil tanker full of non-native invasive jumping fish into Chesapeake Bay shortly before renouncing my American citizenship in the hospital for swallowing water from swimming at Yeosu’s Ungcheon beach. (It’s next to the water-treatment plant re: the shit shack)

Biggest shocker

Most weekends our local beach hamlet usually showcases Korean families wading into the sea in layers of sun-defying shirts and hats.  But during this Expo summer the usually-sleepy local beach (NOT Ungcheon Beach) transformed into the pool at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel…thongs and legs and tanning and flawless Latinas and bikini-clad Russians gaaahhhhhh…

But actually the hottest broads were from…Kazakhstan?!

Kournikova legs, Kardashian asses, faces like K-Pop singers, and curves like Dominicans.  The Kazakh thongs in particular shocked the bashful Koreans, but my buddies and I got to know them pretty well.  This silk road cocktail was topped off with the wholesome, tender, even naïve personality of a good midwestern church girl.

Found at Mosageum Beach

(Glad to say that at least one of my buddies was able to kick enough game to cull one from the herd.  Let her go though, bro—planes fly into Kazakhstan, but they don’t make it back.)

Wait, you actually live here?

With little exception, almost all of the Expo foreigners were amazing, humble, and fun.  Still, the Expo workers almost overwhelmingly didn’t understand why anyone would actually live (gasp) in Yeosu.  I got the feeling that most of them thought the non-Koreans that live in Yeosu are weird townies.

And they’re probably right.

Our little coastal mountain city is our little secret, and only we know why.  We’ll see if it returns to that, or cultivates a newer image as a former Expo town and future resort destination.

(To an extent I wish it stayed more real in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana before the word got out on the Coasts—sorry to my Cali friends but last time I was in Bozeman they were playing the junktronica at a fusion breakfast restaurant.  The fucking Chemical Brothers?!  Not with my omelet.)

The Expo was somewhat of a logistical fiasco

And whyyy, pray tell?

  • Lines.  Usually at the end of a two-hour wait you’ve got great tickets to see your team play State, or you’re strapping up for a rollercoaster ride at Six Flags.  So every time I went to the Expo I bypassed the 2 hour waits at the corporate pavilions, the aquarium, and the bigger-deal pavilions like China because I just couldn’t bear the thought of waiting more than two hours to see what’s essentially a physical tourism pamphlet loosely structured around a global preservation theme.
  • The reservation system.  Several pavilions like Japan had to be pre-reserved just to even be in the line, and other buildings like the theme pavilion and the aquarium required it as well.
  • Parking, taxis, buses.  At the Expo people routinely got stuck in a morass of people for hours trying to get a cab home if they weren’t taking the shuttle bus back to the parking lots.  City buses were free but boarding one brings to mind scenes of a Black Friday shopping cramfuck, while finding a taxi this summer even in my neighborhood nine kilometers away from the Expo brought out the worst of humanity reserved normally for those scrambling for a priceless historical home run ball.

Coming in Part 3: The one where Igor makes sweet, sweet love to the Expo

Uzbekistan’s intellectual export: Best in Region

World Expos have given us advancements in industrialization, global interdependence, precious architecture inspiring generations, and insight into some of our planet’s most fascinating cultures.  Expo 2012 Yeosu, Korea would bring to light the need for preservation of our world’s water with the theme “The Living Ocean and Coast.”

It gave me a flip-flop soaked in blood.

Somewhere between Gangnam Style and the Dougie I shimmied through some broken glass.  My Korean friend working for the Expo had let my crew and I into the roped off Expo participant concert underneath one of the world’s biggest digital screens—a TV ceiling where huge whales and fish and occasionally giant talking heads look down at you, stretching across the ceiling for blocks.  Down on the floor we’d been invited to open buffet and open bar, Argentine tango and Philippine dabakan drums and Korean DJs and we all shared the triumph of knowing the right people.

But I was no impostor, I’m an English teacher in Yeosu but over the summer I’d gotten to know everyone from Angolans to Wookies, Ecuadoreans to Ewoks.  I realized I’d been introduced as Chris the American instead of Chris the Montanan for quite some time now.

But Latin hips and more free booze awaited in the after hours gathering in the Peruvian pavilion, so I cleaned off my foot’s bloody collateral damage from the rest of my body’s good time in a decorative waterfall pool.  I followed my friend Eric to the Peruvian pavilion–he’s an engineer for the Expo’s headlining lights and water show and a product of Montana State University’s engineering college.  (We keep trying to get a weekend out for some abysmal Korean fly-fishing, just to say we fly-fished Korea.  Small world).

Knowing the right people can get you what you want at the Yeosu 2012 Expo.  Because the Expo is not user friendly.  During the day, I felt a little sympathetic for the Koreans logging long hours in the lines of the Expo participant nation pavilions, but this feeling fades quickly when you realize your friend just saved you hours of having to play Temple Run in line on your phone because he speaks Italian (Adrian, I think you are The Batman).

The Expo spirit resides in the international workers

And that was the Expo for me.  Not K-Pop or fireworks or displays of new technologies.  It was new friends, new countries, speaking Spanish again.  Bratwurst and Dunkel and Borscht and Baltika, Mate and Chivitos.  Saying prost and zaz darovia and salute and slainte and danke and spasiba and gracias as naturally as I’d been saying kamsahamnida and kombe, thanks and cheers. You wouldn’t know it based on the overwhelming home presence of Koreans attending what admittedly is their Expo, but the true global concept resides in the workers who usher and announce in the pavilions, who patiently tend bar and work the gift shops and serve at the restaurants and dress up in cultural curios to the delight of millions.  For an Expo marketed as Korea’s Expo—one Asian-er than shit—for me the 2012 Yeosu Expo was everything and anything not Korean.

Makes me want to watch The Addams Family a little

According to Korea, the Expo was a success

In a good blog a little while back a Yeosu teacher and website creator named Tate posited the idea that the entrance price reductions for the Yeosu Expo were a response to fears of failure.  At the time, it seemed to be going that way: attendance was shockingly off projection, parts of the aquarium actually had to be ignominiously shut down.  The reason provided was predictably murky: many of the fish died, possibly because people had been throwing trash into the open tanks, others said that too many people were taking pictures—take that as you will.  Additionally, some pavilions were still tinkering with construction, and Mexico’s pavilion hadn’t even opened yet.

Pretty sweet but pretty empty early on in the Expo (photo by Josh McCabe)

I grant that the signage and announcements should be in the language of the host country, but English simply wasn’t prominent enough for a World Expo.  (And there was zero French for that matter.  I’m not that old but I remember when French was the world’s lingua franca at international events).  Also, the Expo seemed to be just as much about Korea’s crowning cultural achievement—K-Pop festivals—than it was about the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast.”  Finally, the fact that 4 out of every 5 of the attendees were from Korea (the Expo facebook newsfeed says 80% of attendees were “Asians” but I think they mean mostly Koreans), the whole thing felt more like a “yay us” Korean appreciation festival than a World Exposition showcasing global togetherness.

This was Yeosu’s Expo in name and location only

It’s no secret that much of the Expo management came from the Capital of Korea, not our little sea town.

Seoul came to town.

Right outside the Expo gates, the starved-for-something-new Yeosu resident Engish teachers were treated to a new bar with good music and new people.  In this small international bar were a veritable caucus of young Seoulsters, much like Hollywood hijacks Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, and much like the offices of the Yeosu Expo administration.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and even though I have a few Korean friends from Yeosu that actually are pretty high up the administrative chain for the Expo, it seemed that the local Yeosu workforce involvement was limited to manning the parking and information booths around the city.  Seoul took the reins, and at least residually, this may have been in response to the fact that the gap in English ability from Seoul to this country-as-hell province of Jeollanamdo is frightening.  For me it was even kind of a culture shock speaking to Seoul Koreans and including articles and general sentence syntax in the conversations. (To Seoul people, you can say “I am going to the store” in place of the Yeosu patois you’re forced take on here for comprehension, where you’re more likely to be understood if you say “I’m store go”).

“Chris and Brenton beer mart go.”

Thomas, another teacher friend of mine that frequented the Expo, told me that for the children of sheltered Yeosu and greater South Jeolla province, this provided a cultural awakening unlike any other they’re likely to ever experience in this country, even in Seoul.   “They might even remember what it was like for a few years,”  He said.

I was pleased to know that even for my elementary students, they could locate far-off obscure nations like Qatar or Turkmenistan on a map, and tell me something about them.  Americans have Jay Leno’s “Jay-Walking”, where he walks the streets of L.A. looking for bozos that look at a picture of Joe Biden and think it’s one of the judges from “Dancing with the Stars.”

Koreans do very American things at times

They stick to what they know.

On another one of my now infamous voluntary/mandatory day outings with my boss’s husband and son, it’s Sunday morning and I was out the night before so naturally I’m not on point.  It’s jungle-hot that July day and I’m starving but stoked to try out the Expo’s tremendous international food options.

But if you go with Koreans, be prepared to walk past the literally hundreds of delicious world class delicacies from countries of untold culinary distinction and… eat noodles and rice at the Korean cafeteria.

Koreans do very Korean things at times

The main promenade underneath the massive digital-screen ceiling in the international pavilion is where you can see street performers, magicians, and people watch.  The last Saturday of the Expo this wasn’t possible however, since there were more than 150,000 people there, many of whom had taken their shoes off.  They laid out their Expo maps, mats from home, and even pieces of cardboard to sit, nap, and generally congregate on the ground to chill out like they would on their living room floors at home.

My buddy Brenton said it best,  “How did all these homeless people get into the Expo?”

Spare some change?

The Statues of Wolchulsan

Posted: April 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

I wandered off into a statue park off the entrance to Korea’s Wolchulsan National Park.  I found…well, I found.

They've cornered the Biebs.

or "What happens when a Korean student gets a C on a 4th grade calculus test"

Edamame boob.

Would looove a caption for this

No clue.

Something about zippers or bi-curiosity?

Pregnant dudes.

Sleep in a pile!

A hangover.

Wolchulsan with Mr. Solo Dolo

Posted: April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

The sky goes from pink to red to black as my rice wine friend Makkoli and I sit and watch the sun set over the rounded, tapered cathedral peaks of Wolchulsan.  A few hikers pass by, lagging behind the big groups of hikers already gone.  New ones will be back tomorrow, by the thousands.

Wolchulsan, in South Jeolla province, is known as the smallest national park in Korea.  I’ve always found this to be a useless bit of trivia, but whenever I tell my boss or a Korean friend that I went hiking there, this nugget of trivia stands out.  The mountains of Wolchulsan are not small, they just rise out of a fertile, flat plane like an iceberg.  I’m here for the cloud bridge.

My Saturday night was spent drunk-dialing friends and family back home from the floor of the minbak.  This is standard fare in the small hiking villages of Korea.  There’s no bed, just some bedding and straw pillows, a TV, and often a mini fridge.  I’m stoked to be here.  I love calling home, but when I get the bill it isn’t just complicated, it’s colossal.  Think it’s time for kakao talk on a smart phone.  I chill back with more Makkoli and watch “Enemy at the Gates”, a great action/sniper film, protypical of the English accent utilized and attributed in a setting totally not anglophone.  There’s Russian on the signs and ammo crates of the hideout while they patter on in the Queen’s English.

It's just...I can't spell for shit.

I’d seen this one before, but this was Jude Law at his peak, an illiterate sniper hero, blah blah blah…then one of those infamous Korean half hour commercials interrupts the action.  Although Korean infomercials are even more unintentionally entertaining than in the states, I still surf around, freezing on K-Pop.  I fail to flip back for the killer Jude Law/Ed Harris sniper duel conclusion because, come on, it’s this:

I got up at 6 and told myself to bang out the hike so I could rush back to bed.  My head hurt a little and I was ready to cleanse myself through sweat.  By 6:46 I was making my first steps through the entrance.  By a little after 9AM I had summitted—although I loafed it—having a breakdown at the beauty of it all during one particular misty vista.  I zoned out there for a legit ten minutes thinking about things totally unrelated to what I was seeing: inspired by thoughts that matter the most, and ultimately, challenged by those that matter the least.

Like I did here last fall, I have fun with the hikers I pass, making a point to be a good western ambassador.  “Annyong Haseyo….oooooh, himdaroyo mani mani chiiiincha himdaroyo”  I say, playing up how tiring the mountain’s supposed to be—wiping my brow hyper dramatically.

“You Korean, very ok!”  They would say.

“Oh were havin’ fuuun…”  I would call back like Jackie Moon.

My pandering works without fail.  I’ve been called a shameless, crowd-pleasing ham by most, but you can never say I can’t read my crowd and cultivate some kind of bullshit to make a connection with another human being.

At the minbak, however, I failed to make even the simplest interaction count.  The balding man in charge of the place ran a small market underneath the rooms.  His raccoon eyes popped out with disdain at our interactions, lacking any veneer of a command of even proto-pidgin English for simple requests.

I couldn’t come up with enough Korean for these obstacles:

-“The entrance to the entire building is locked at every possible point of access.”

-“I believe the gas has been left on in one of the rooms.”

-“Hot water, please?”

Still a nice view minus the wire.

As a teacher, I need to do a lot of gesticulating and activity modeling, so I was able to survive these interactions.  The only snafu came in the form of my forgotten toothbrush; I tried sound effects with the invisible brush, pulling out an invisible tube of Crest and applying it methodically to said invisible brush, then evoking the brushing motion, but it was all for naught.  Giving up, I go to another minbak and easily snag a toothbrush using one simple motion.  They even told me 칫솔 (“chis-sol”) for future reference.

On the hike, I’m alone for most of the first hour.  I’m nearly passed by some loud 50-somethings grab-assing and engaging in general hiking horseplay, pushing and shoving playfully.  I realize we all kind of stay the same, growing older’s just another stage.  I try to double time it (I hate being passed) and take what I think is the right path but turns out to be some Indiana Jones shit that makes me lose a half hour to being stubborn.  I realized the brush and scree and rock cover wasn’t getting any easier and turned around.   It’s not called thinnet ya know? I catch up to the group of ajummas and ajashis relaxing with kimchi and soju at a waterfall about 20 minutes later.

The trees weren’t in bloom on the mountain yet, but since the spring cherry blossom bloom had almost finished in Yeosu, I thought this would be the weekend to see an entire mountain of pink.  The flowers were limited to the base, so all I got was some green for the first two or three hundred meters of vertical.  Minus the lack of snow, it was still pretty wintry at the top.  The misty expanse was unmistakable there.  There’s that shot of, “Wow, this is truly Asia,” lingering through the mountains and valleys.

Say what you will about my sordid makkoli embibing on the floor of the minbak, the fifty odd Koreans randomly sitting crosslegged on the summit were enjoying themselves—by enjoying themselves I mean most of them were absolutely hammered.  I’m offered Soju and beer several times between posing for pictures.  Some of them had rifled through 3 or more bottles of Soju among their foursome.  I’m chided for wearing shorts and hiking alone by a man perched disastrously close to the cliff’s edge as he sucks back another 9AM shot of Korean liquor.

Ok, a little bit left...no, now a few steps back...

After the summit I snake around the mountain’s back, the most quiet and sunny part of the hike.  Maybe 15% of it is steep steel steps.  It’s an amazing achievement, although not exactly “leave no trace.”  It’s burly going here, varying between jagged rocks and steep stairways that bounce up and down in extremes; the way down is almost as grueling as the way up.   After some narrow corridors, I stop at a wide outlook famous for watching rock climbers, but there’s none this morning.  I was truly famished, so opened up my pack of what I thought were mini-muffins, but turn out to be disgusting red-bean jelly surrounded by a thin layer of twinkie-style breading.   This is sort of a rite-of passage for food trickery in Korea.  My buddy Tyler’s had this happen to him several times when he tries to get his pre-workout carbs.   He always takes a bite then looks at me with a disappointed face, snapping, “Shems!”

“What now?”  I always ask.

“Red bean filling!” He says, motioning for me to take his breakfast treat.

“I’m good on that, man.”

The few minutes before I reach the skybridge are the busiest.  The trail and submarine steps are chocked full of people who hiked to the bridge first, leaving the last two-thirds of the mountain for after the climax of Wolchulsan, a little like those that polish off their popcorn before the opening credits are over.  I leave the best for last, secretly tsk-tsking the veritable bread line of Koreans lined up to hike the rest of the mountain after seeing the cloud bridge within the first 30 minutes of a nearly 4 hour climb.

I’d seen Gureumdari once before. It’s not as impressive the second time, just another bit of proof for the law of diminishing results.  But come on, it’s a freakin’ bridge in the sky.  It bounces a more than a little as you cross it.  I lean over the side and look down at the crevasse several hundred feet below me to get that heaving surge of fright for the hell of it before I lean back.  I cross the bridge just as a big group of middle-aged children decided to jump up and down on the thing.

After the rush of summitting and the breathtaking cloud bridge is over, I kind of just want to get the hell off the hill.  By the last half hour of the trip, I noticed I was getting grumpy with the Koreans asking me the exact same question that I’d got by every 5th or so person I passed the last 3 and a half: “Oh, waygukin!  Where you from?  Oh Wulchulsan, himdaroyo…goo-job!”

“My from is Korea,”  I bite, avoiding eye contact.

There’s a temple almost at the bottom of the hill, and I sit down by a stream-fed pool of drinking water and eat the rest of the now delicious red-bean bread poppers.  Refreshed from the well, I devise a plan for the rest of the day.  I’m off the nap idea, still buzzed from the up and down exhaustion, but wholly revamped.  At this temple at the foot of this giant, at this hallowed ground with pure water streaming out of our precious earth, my eyes stuck on a mystifying view of space and time, I decide, “Fuck it, let’s go shopping.”

An hour bus ride and I’m back in Gwangju, which is about an hour and a half from Yeosu on the bus.  Gwangju is Korea’s 6th largest city, probably comparable to the size of Metropolitan Detroit.  It’s an expanse of 20-30 story apartments with no cohesive downtown really, but the bus passes a pleaseant riverside prominade ringed by trees in full cherry mode.  Other than mediocre baseball games in the summer, and it’s history of a hotbed of political protests (there was a massacre there 22 years ago in May) Gwangju doesn’t do it for me.  I’m kind of down on the city but then I get to the very modern, very busy bus station.

“Oh yeah, skirt season…”

Showing arms and torsos is considered unspeakable in Korea, but ladies getting their skirts and short-shorts as high up their appealing thighs while wearing the most hookerish high heels you can is an absolute double-standard blessing.  It’s nice.  I’m a T and A man, but I gotta give it up.  Korea is the world capital for two things: stunning faces and legs.  Not a bad two-trick pony.

I bunglingly stow my bag in a bus terminal locker and find how to get to this Japanese brand-store called Uniqlo.  I walk to it outside in the blowing pink wind.  The spring is nice in Montana and New York, but come on!  Love those goddamn Korean flowers in the wind.

Uniqlo is pretty dope, with inane Japanese t-shirts adorned with babies and roosters and Andy Warhol.  The shocking prices don’t push me out the door because it’s one of the only places in Korea where an extra large isn’t an American medium.  I justify that pissing away the last of my petty money before payday here is better than the bar, so I cop a heap of hoodies, v necks, and some shorts and beat it.  I walk around Gwangju for a bit looking for that zap of that’s it! for where I want to go to eat that I can’t get in Yeosu (re: not Korean food).  I then make my second betrayal to the idyllic beauty that Wolchulsan should have instilled in me.

Burger King on the bus?  You’re welcome, guy sitting next to me.

Listen, it's flame broiled, you punk.

­

Canadian Mike and Shenzhen Sarah are gone.  I’m thirsty, and I’m exhausted from sun and too many bitter San Miguels.  The sun is setting and I’m trying to hold the bike steady as I maneuver through the third world.  Siquijor Island’s perimeter road is shiny-black new—I could race home on Henry the Yellow Honda out of boredom or thrill-seeking, but I resolve to chaffeur myself home safely along the turquoise seafront.  This is realized by squinting, hiccupping, and sucking in air slow and deep as the road curves and jerks, gobbling up the bike’s suspension.  I pass my favorite view of the island, an enormous break in the jungle to a bottle-green pasture teeming with pelicans, walled in by stepped rice terraces, and I can’t bear the thought of how dreadfully beautiful this is.

Guilt washes over me.

I imagine the dismay, the betrayal to my always smiling, incessantly optimistic childhood friend dead at 80 MPH on a washboard dirt road in Montana.  Just attending the junior-year homecoming dance wouldn’t hold their attention, so he and another guy got drunk before and after.  My buddy got into the doomed vehicle to keep the other guy company, likely to keep him from passing out.    The reports say they flipped horrifically end over end.  The kid driving survived the accident, panicked when he saw his dying friend hanging there upside down by his seatbelt and lost his honor.  He was found hiding the next morning in a friend’s garage.  Most of us hated the kid—thought he was a punk—many of us still do.  I don’t know where I stand anymore, but it begs the question, what would you do at seventeen?  Those without sin, please wind up.

Two futures lost. 

I still think about my friend’s mom and sister.  I think about my family and all the people I know with DUIs and wonder how I’m not one of them.  I want to knock on wood, I want to get off the motorcycle and walk.  

I want to dry the hell out.

I’m almost home, isn’t that always the excuse…the mistake?  The palms, the vines, the huts on the sand, it’s all candy for the eye.  Boundless sky blends with the water, linking purple and pink splashes across from heaven to sea in some celestial Rorschach blot.  The chirping of tropical insects and twilight animals in the trees I pass lets me know I have to get home straightaway.  I’m used to racing home to beat the night—a reverse vampire.  (My front light on my Japanese scooter in Korea is out because I can’t find a part for it in the vertically-integrated Korean-only economy of Yeosu.)  I shift up and cruise, checking my rearview out of paranoia, noticing the lack of sundown traffic in paradise.  I don’t  hear the whirr of the engine, just the wind blowing through the palms and banyan trees.  We’re not physical beings trying to be spiritual, we’re spiritual beings struggling to be physical.  That unmistakable scent of third world smoke fills the air—slash and burn.  Dinner time in the Visayas.  The sunset palette spilling across the sky is now a low-burning cinder of golden ginger orange, and I can’t watch the road for the life of me.  Maybe it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.  Maybe it’s the happiest I’ll ever be.  The euphoria of life and the end of the day in the tropics is the greatest extent of rapture a man can have if a man is alone.

Not lonely, just alone.

Never have I been a teetotaler.  Between hiccups, my mind flashes to past foolishness, here I am drunk-driving my buddies home from a busted college house kegger in South Hills, Missoula in 2004—a call to the cops for neighborhood noise complaints that only created more scared drunk drivers.  My buddy usually volunteered the duty in his shaky blue jeep, but it was my turn.  (He’d have to rub the dash tenderly and talk sweet to ole blue so it would start up.)  Here I am snaking down icy February switch-backs followed by Montana’s finest DUI task force—focus like a Jedi—awaiting the squad car’s wintry spotlight, thanking my lucky stars they never lit me up.

I’m reasonably sure I’ve never had kids, and I’ve been in love a few times.  I’m an ok-enough son, a so-so brother and uncle, a loyal hothead with my closest friends, but basically have a body of anecdotes people can work with so I go out on a good note.  Not quite an alley-cat, not quite a beatified food-drive organizer, homebodies reading my hometown obit might even think I was a little bit lost, but still enviably, pitiably, interesting.  Maybe there’ll be a family someday, maybe I’ll get to the point of financial stability where I’m voting Republican (fat chance). 

How would people spin my eulogy?  “What can you say about Chris?  Um, geez…well, he was always worth a story about himself or two, and he did like Coffee Crisp chocolate bars…”

Every summer my mother took off work to take my sister and I on precious summer trips to her home in Canada to visit our relatives.  It was a two-day slog in a Chevy.  My Game Boy batteries always ran out by Bismarck, North Dakota.  So out of pure boredom, and likely out of deliberate entertainment, I quarreled with them unrepentantly.  Like most Canadian cities, Winnipeg is huddled up close to the American border, and it was over this border that my adolescent annoyance approached Bill O’Reilly irritability.  I would beatbox from the border check all the way to my to my Aunt’s high-rise in the city, or repeat the same sentence over and over again until my sister was reduced to tearful begging, providing my mother with the opportunity to throw a big gulp of soda on me out of desperation. 

Then I would stop.  Good on ya, mom. 

As I dripped of Diet Coke, she would say sagely, “The last part of the journey is always the hardest.”

I turn off Siquijor’s main road onto the rock-pocked side road leading to home, leading to Kiwi Dive.  I’m rumbling along on my motorcycle, completely unalert, ready to be off, ready to be home.

I’m 30 meters from home when inevitability finds me, too.

Suddenly, the bumpy but level plane of the path rises almost deliberately against me, and I see a raised dirt berm too late in the game.

Slamming on the brakes with both hand and foot brakes proves pointless, and I wash out monumentally, my bike sliding down the rocky path a few dozen more feet than me.  The flesh of my torso, legs and hip are grated against the craggy road like so much cheese.  It’s the same obstacle I’d avoided earlier in the day on a different motorbike I could scarcely handle—my Tuesday vacation spoils reduced to bloody mental images of dead roosters and seeping ironic raspberries of road rash that rise and fall up and down my body from a simpler yellow bike that I thought I’d mastered.

I sit there in the dust for a minute collecting myself as the flashes of hot pain shiver up and my bloodied trunk and arms.  The ill-fitting helmet shunks loosely against my skull as I shake my head in I knew it self-indignation.  Groaning, I pick myself up, inspect the bike, then look back again at the perpetrator of my smarting.  The bike, ever resilient, shows almost no sign of my good time.

I think about another vacation cigarette. By this point in the Philippines, I’ve vacation-smoked my way to actual addiction.  I’m also hooked on riding.  Cue Seeger’s “Turn the Page”.  I think about riding again tomorrow into the hills, into witch doctor country.  I think about the dualistic relief and pangs of my busted engagement.  I think about cortisone and band-aids and other palliative methods for being 28 and struggling to be good at being me.  Limping  for the last few turns of the path, I push Henry the Yellow Honda toward my cabana sanctuary .

To home.

For now, home is a cold tropical shower, home is thinking about avian bloodsport, rum and cokes and life and maybe witch doctors tomorrow and a bullfight some day.  For now, I’ll settle for some fish and chips with Gary the secretly sad Vietnam vet and maybe even the impish Red Baron.

 

-Chris,    April 2012