Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misleading photos

I don't take taxis very often. I prefer walking. But I have noticed in every Korean cab I've ever ridden in that the driver's picture on the laminated copy of his license does not even vaguely resemble him. When I had my photo taken for my alien registration card, the photographer touched up my picture in photoshop, whitening my skin, erasing wisps of hair and elongating my neck. He also opened up a folder full of what appeared to be printable paper doll clothes and selected a frilly blue shirt to match my eyes. Last week I had new passport photos taken and the prints just arrived. My skin has obviously been whitened, which is not the look I'm seeking.

Koreans' obsession with appearances has been the biggest cultural hurdle for me. Plastic surgery here is rampant. Whiteness and round eyes are revered. In some extreme cases, parents even have their children endure leg lengthening surgery, in which children's legs are surgically broken and stretched. Complications probably account for the number of young people I see limping around. Thinness is another important asset in Korean culture which I couldn't forget even if I tried.

One of my Korean friends told me that she is afraid to eat a lot in front of men because they might make critical remarks. Well, yesterday I devoured most of a pizza at my desk. But even though the coast was clear as far as men go, a female teacher criticized my eating habits. Trying to see the humor in this situation and not get annoyed, I said, "One slice is not enough." She cocked her head to the side, thinking, before offering what she thought was a good solution. "One slice and fruit!"

I'm definitely becoming a more patient person here in Korea. My last New Years' resolution was to be more patient and be better with money. I'm not tearing my hair out and I'm not penniless, so I must be doing okay.

Monday, November 28, 2011

We the Animals

"We the Animals" is Justin Torres' novel based on his life of growing up poor in upstate New York, the youngest of three brothers and the offspring of a white mother and Puerto Rican father. The chapters are like snapshots of memories, all told from the perspective of the young narrator. The brothers are a pack, hunting together, playing together, sleeping and eating together.  The novel is told in first person plural. Gradually, the main character ages and drifts apart from the pack and the voice of the novel breaks off into something hysterical as it tries to reinvent itself as an individual voice.

The child narrator is so convincing. I loved how the reader is fed all the child-like observations without an adult filter. I was unsure of the time or setting in the beginning and I, being very gullible, believed the narrator’s immature perceptions of his world, even if the world he presented was confusing and didn’t add up to much sense. When the mother was badly beaten up and the father told his sons the dentist punched her in the face to loosen up her teeth, I just thought, “Okay, that sounds like the kind of health insurance I can afford.” But instead of realizing the father’s lie and placing responsibility where it belonged, I naively thought the family just lived in some strange world where dentists punched their patients in the face.

In a beautiful chapter titled “Seven,” the mother tells her youngest son she wants him to stay seven years old forever. I shared this opinion, but not for the same reason. Perhaps because the novel is so short I felt like the narrator grew up too fast. The way it ends with the main character being hospitalized and disgraced for being gay seems like the beginning of another book.

Justin Torres is a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I was awed when I learned he has two of the most prestigious honors available to writers. He definitely has a passionate and original voice. "We the Animals" is something magical and I look forward to Torres' next book.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Seoulful Weekend

I am impressed with aspects of Seoul, but after my weekend in Korea’s capital, I’m glad I chose to live in the countryside. Most of my time was spent in Itaewon, a neighborhood frequented by foreigners, adjacent to the army base, Yongsan Garrison.

My primary reason for going to Seoul was so I could attend the publication party for “Out of Place,” a literary journal in which I was published. The pre-launch party on Saturday night was at a bar called The Orange Tree. My friends accompanied me for a night of poetry and beer. I took my turn at the microphone to read from my short story “Speakeasy,” about a distracted girl who breaks down and confesses her secrets in a bluebook essay, which is supposed to be about the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Afterward, we went to a party with new writer friends at a place called Moon. I took part in a competition, pairing up with a handsome man I had just met. The object of the game was to roll a coconut from our bellies to our mouths without using our hands. I had to kneel down to tuck the coconut under my chin, which looks pretty scandalous in the pictures my friends took. :/

The actual publication party was on Sunday at a chic restaurant called Berlin. It was so nice having a glass of wine and eating non-Korean food for a change. Drinking good wine, beer, coffee, chai, Turkish tea and ayran are pleasures I will never take for granted. I like a variety of beverages and a variety of people, and this weekend I got both. I just wish I could live in the peaceful countryside and still be close to Seoul.

I indulged in buying used books at “What the Book” and at another compact bookstore in the same neighborhood.  I bought a Mongolian phrase book and a Turkish phrasebook to prepare me for upcoming adventures. At one of the many Turkish restaurants in Itaewon, I was so happy that my “Merhaba” directed at the server sparked a lengthy response in Turkish and then a surprised reaction when I told her I’m American and my Turkish language skills are minimal.

My only regret is that I did not go to a jazz club in Seoul. I’m happy to be back in Mokpo, even though I am deprived of variety here. I realized today when I got a thrill from watching 60 Minutes online that I am a bonafide fuddy duddy. But it’s nice to have a weekend of excitement every once in a while.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


A male student just paraded down the hallway brandishing a dead mouse rolled in paper, reminding me that I need to write a review of "Maus" by Art Spiegelman.

"Murderer" is the word that sticks out in this book, but it's applied to unexpected people, not the Nazis or Nazi collaborators, but Art Spiegelman's parents. I'm confused and intrigued. I need to read the 2nd Maus book and hopefully Spiegelman's complex relationship with his parents, who survived the Holocaust, will become more clear.

"Maus" is a graphic novel, originally published in 1973. People always put it on a pedestal as one of the essential graphic novels, probably because its success catapulted graphic novels to a new level, gaining higher respect for this important art form.

In the book, Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs. I read on Amazon that many reviewers were offended by Spiegelman's choice of animal to represent Poles. In my opinion, if people blow up minor details and choose to be offended, those details will overshadow the ones people should pay attention to, like the emotion conveyed on the faces of the athropophormic animals, the undying love the father feels for his wife, and the beautiful broken English the father employs, adding to his impish childlike demeanor.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

The documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” is an amazing achievement. It has changed the way I see the world. I wish I could be more like Bill Cunningham, delightful and modest, able to make friends with everyone and see past phony surfaces to the real innovative fashion that cloaks pedestrians on the street. But I’m not. Very few people have the vision to see beauty in such fleeting moments.

Since 1978 Bill Cunningham has ridden his bike all over Manhattan to capture photos of interesting fashions for the New York Times' "On the Street" photo feature in the Style section.

Watching this movie is almost like reading a recipe for happiness. I laughed several times when Bill would squabble with his assistant or with the other elderly photographer who lived in his building. The assistant’s job consisted of taking film out of boxes and moving images around on a screen, meanwhile listening to Bill Cunningham tell him what to do. I thought it was hilarious when Bill described a woman’s garbage bag dress as looking like a black rose. The assistant replied, “Looks like a black garbage bag to me.” After making another insightful fashion observation to the assistant, Bill jokingly said something along the lines of, “Why am I taking to you about this? You’re a lumberjack!”

Bill Cunningham is an honorable man who should set the moral code for all photographers in the fashion industry. While people are struggling to redistribute wealth, Bill Cunningham is redistributing beauty where it belongs: in everyday people, not in sickly skinny models or surgically configured faces. He doesn’t care about celebrities and he doesn’t accept money for his work. He does what he loves and lives meekly.

While watching this movie, I remembered hearing a song by Jens Lekman about waiting for Kirsten Dunst to arrive at a club in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. She could not get into the club, even being Kirsten Dunst. In this song, Lekman takes pride in his town’s down-to-earth sensibility and disinterest in celebrities. That’s the way it should be everywhere, if you ask me.


Here's a drawing I did last summer of my friend Alex. We met in Korea and he is one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people I've ever met.

Old drawing of my mom

This is a drawing of my mom I did about eight or nine years ago. I remember we were at a party and I was phenomenally bored out of my mind. Usually, it's hard for me to draw my mom, which is strange because she looks like me. But I think this drawing looks like her.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Marjane Satrapi has a gift for exposing frail, laughable humanity in very bold drawings. She packs humor and tragedy into her books, throwing witty punches and allowing for sympathetic pauses. I cannot express the gargantuan importance of this book, nor my infinite gratitude that it exists. In this tale of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Satrapi offers the comic book equivalent of a symphony. The drawings are vivacious, ascending and descending, ever changing, like a complex piece of music.

Being a good drawer doesn't necessarily make you good at drawing comics. Readers of Marjane Satrapi’s books will appreciate the clarity, how their eyes glide easily across the page, from beginning to end. Each box is a different lens, giving readers a fresh take on this historic time, which happened to coincide with Satrapi’s childhood.

Most importantly, people worldwide have an opportunity to look into a mysterious, often misunderstood country. Instead of seeing Iran as a demonic nation in the Axis of Evil, we can see that the people of Iran have suffered greatly. Rather than only learn about Iran from biased media, we can focus on our shared humanity through art. We need more creative visionaries like Marjane Satrapi to deepen human understanding.      

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NaNoWriMo. Day 3.

What is the point? Hopefully, you won’t ask this about your writing, but chances are, you will have an off day and ask yourself just that. From what I understand about NaNoWriMo, the point is just to write and not let doubt weigh you down. Save the editing and doubting for December.

Last night, Holly, my upstairs neighbor came over for a writing sprint. That’s when you write for a designated amount of time without pausing. At my suggestion, we listened to the “The Marriage of Figaro,” because Mozart is significant in my novel. After our 15 minute writing sprint, we chatted and wolfed down chocolate cake.

We were going to do another writing sprint, this time listening to Strauss, but our conversation got carried away. We discussed our associations with people, how we are repelled and attracted to certain people based on past experiences. I told her about men who remind me of boys from middle school, never a good sign, and how, based on that connection I made, I try to avoid their company.

Then I talked about one person in my life who I hope will be a surprising character. In fiction, characters who act in surprising ways are wonderful. But this is not fiction. This is my life. I can’t control this guy’s actions like I could a character. I guess when you have both negative and positive associations with somebody that just makes for more complicated characters and richer writing.

In the middle of one of my stories, Holly said, “I want to find a song that fits the mood of your story.” Of all songs, she had to pick “I’m on Fire,” by Bruce Springsteen. This song has powerful memories attached to it. 

SO weird. 

Earlier yesterday, I was walking and trying to figure out a stripping scene for my novel. Then I heard the song, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” playing as I passed by a restaurant. I thought that was a sign, even though I don’t really believe in signs.

But I have revealed too much. Now you know my novel involves Mozart and a stripping scene. This exhibition is over.

Happy writing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo. Day 2.

Last night I busted out 1,718 words. Now I just need to do that 29 more times.

Because I am teaching online classes in the middle of my work day, I leave my laptop at school to make my life easier. So last night I was determined to finish my 1667 words that are recommended in order to reach the 50,000-word goal at the end of the month. I had reached 1,000 at school and I thought it would be easy enough to stretch that out, but when I lay down with my notebook and pillow on the floor of my apartment, I almost fell asleep. So I left my warm, garlic- and cheese- and perfume- and incense-smelling apartment and took my work to a nearby coffee shop.

Korea is a loud country. I notice noises other people don’t and I’m gradually adapting to working in a loud environment and tuning out the commotion around me. The man on the computer next to me felt the need to play music on his computer to compete with the Korean ballads blaring from the coffee shop speakers. 

Writing a novel in one month is going to be difficult, but I have no excuses not to finish this year. Here's to a happy productive month of writing. Cheers!