Korea - Month 7

After hitting the 6-month mark, I felt like a new recruit who had made it through Basic Training. March was the end of Winter Break and the start of a new school year. All my teacher friends were back in town from various jaunts around the globe and there was a general sense of, "If we made it through the first half, we can make it through this half." People had already begun to discuss whether or not they would renew contracts for another year.

My biggest concern at the beginning of March was not the new batch of freshmen we were about to require but turning the ripe (stale?) old age of 31! Can you say, "Was. Not. Looking. Forward. To. It."?

Actually, let me backtrack. I hadn't given much consideration to turning 31 at all. Some of you who've had the (mis)fortune(?) of being around me the last few years before I turned the corner into the non-refundable land of adulthood may recall my minor obsession with mentally preparing myself for the "BIG 3-OH" as I like to call it. I had been on a perpetual countdown since age 26. I truly believed that the worst thing that could happen to a person was to face the blank slate of adulthood consumed by a sense of only mediocre preparedness. What does that even mean...

Right. So, with four years of 30-preparedness under my belt, I got all dressed up, invited a few friends and threw myself a "BIG 3-OH" party. The party wasn't exactly "big" but the cake was yummy and I was surrounded by good friends. It was turning 30-years-old that helped me make the decision to 1) study film writing with Act One in Hollywood and 2) spend some time living overseas. All was well.

Then came 2009 and the year, 31. I guess this is what happens to girls who are obsessed with weddings who never give marriage a second thought...reality sticker shock! Like, you don't just have a wedding and "get" a husband, you have to be a wife. As much as I had no problem with being 30, rolling a 1 up behind that 3 adds a feeling of permanence I hadn't anticipated in the least. True, I never believed all this "30 is the new 20" foolishness and what-have-you---that's the same madness that has Madonna's old, wannabe tail rocking a leotard on the cover of her album when she should be raising the babies she shoulda had about a decade ago---but neither did I expect to ever be "one of those people" who dreaded aging. Ok, enough with the intro...

On my actual birthday (a Thursday), I enjoyed a few hand-selected snacks sent by my family and proudly put the birthday cards on my desk, which was a first. (I'm generally 'anti-personal affects' in my workspace. Furthermore, I typically don't care for cards. A few of you have heard me harp on this. $5 for a card? I'll take cash, thanks!) I was so shocked to see that my niece had written "Auntie Taryn" on her envelope. It was the first time I had ever seen her handwriting! I was definitely on old lady status when I felt tears form in my eyes as I opened it. After work, I kept things low-key and grabbed a coffee with a friend.

Through the powers of Facebook, I had set up a little event to celebrate the following Saturday and invited a few friends. A few of those friends invited a couple of friends and in the end, about 20 of us got together for dinner. I had intended to eat at a Western style bar/grill place called Uncle29 (no relation to "Uncle Tom", I assure you) but the friend coordinating that aspect of the evening got confused about the date and time. The night of, realizing we had a few more folks than originally anticipated, and no guarantees about seating, we headed over to a Turkish restaurant called Pasha. I had never been there but it was a great choice. Definitely grown and sexy ;) reasonably priced, and plenty of room for everyone.

After eating, we headed over to a bar lounge to eat the cute little birthday cake a couple of the guys had picked up. One of the coolest things about Korea is how seriously they take cakes out here! I mentioned Christmas cakes before but it's as if a really cute cake really is the perfect accessory to festive evening. (That's not to imply that they taste the way they look, or at least the way they look to an American, but the presentation is first class!) Each cake comes with it's own plastic knife and birthday candle which is just...perfect.

So, after eating my perfect cake, most of us headed out to a popular little night spot in Gangnam called NB (Noise Basement) which is supposedly owned by the founder of one of Korea's most popular record labels. It was crowded. Ridiculously crowded. Like, does-firecode-even-exist-out-here? crowded. Despite paying so much to get in, I refused to stay more than a 30 feet from an exit for longer than five minutes or so. In the end, a few of us ended up staying out until the subway started running again (530am). My friend Julie and I rode across town for some really yummy french toast then called it a 'morning' around 830 am. I hadn't pulled an all-nighter like that in...at least 10 years! (And comments like that are what remind me exactly how old I am...)

The week after my birthday, I met up with Bohee, one of the girls I befriended at L'abri. She's an undergrad at Yonsei University, fairly fluent in English AND French (geez, I feel like a slacker!), and a really sweet girl. We hadn't seen each other since January. Since she wasn't able to attend my birthday festivities, she brought me a little piece of cake to celebrate after dinner. So cute! It was quite tasty. We snacked at a student-run cafe near her university where they serve "Delicious" cookies. ; ) It was quite nice.

On to sticker shock...

Since I've been in Korea, I'd been wanting to go to one of the various language exchanges around Seoul. Typically, folks get together and chat over snacks and drinks. It's a good chance to meet people and if you have enough vocabulary, get a little language practice in. The weekend after my birthday, a friend and I decided to give it a try. We headed off to the exchange headed by Hana Cafe in Sinchon, an area situated near three major universities. Hana Cafe is pretty well developed with groups for English, Japanese, and Chinese for Korean speakers and a dedicated meeting space.

I hung around in the English language area for a bit then inquired about the Chinese group. After being shown to the meeting area, I was relieved to discover the leader spoke English since what little Mandarin vocabulary I know seemed to disappear the moment I was asked to introduce myself! Only six months in Korea and I'd quickly gone from , to , . I choked out a pitiful attempt at introduction and was warmly welcomed by other folks who were there. After a bit, one of the coordinators forced us to pose for photos "for the website" again. (If I had a 1,000 won for every time I've been in a promo photo...) I excused myself shortly thereafter and bounced back down to the English language exchange.

I was only sitting for a minute or two before a different coordinator pulled me aside and asked what I was doing "tomorrow". Probably sensing the cartoon question mark hovering above my forehead, he quickly followed up with, "Do you wanna be on TV?" Affirmative! My vanity rarely allows me to refuse an opportunity to feel important, how ever ridiculous it may be. Sweet! I thought. Korea goal #77 completed! Now if I could just find Daniel Henney...

After the language exchange, I joined some of the other folks for some "Round 2" snacks and beverages. I learned a few useful phrases like, "Do you want to die?!" and taught them a few of increasing intensity as well. Ah, the joys of sharing...

The next day, I was greeting two strangers--a cute little Japanese girl, a tall brown-haired boy--and a blond fellow who was in my teacher training back in August. Our driver was a youngish Korean girl who I assume was a production assistant for the TV station. The five of us hopped into her vehicle, a late-model white sedan designed for four. Our driver spoke virtually no English. The Japanese girl spoke little Korean and even less English! Fortunately, the brown-haired boy was some sort of Japanese/Korean Studies major, so he handled all the translating. After believing we were headed to a location somewhere in Seoul, we were totally surprised to discover we were on a one-and-half to two-hour drive deep into the surrounding province! Details, details...

We chattered away until we reached the city limits. By then, the monotony of the ride took its toll and we found ourselves drifting in and out of sleep. Somewhere along the way, we all happened to be awake again. Our driver explained that we were fairly near our destination. A short time after that revelation, we got into a car accident!

I remember seeing a car stopped in the fast lane. I remember bracing myself and I remember the driver screaming, throwing on the brakes, and running straight into the back of the "stopped" vehicle! When I saw the car, I was certain we were going to hit it, so I'm not sure why she didn't attempt to swerve. (Maybe she doesn't drive on the highway very often?)

At any rate, the cars were banged up pretty bad (as modern cars are known to do at the slightest bump) but there was no blood, no bruises. Naturally, we all suffered a bit of a shock but were terribly grateful to have been awake rather than sleeping at the time it occurred! Thank God. Because I wasn't wearing my seatbelt, I managed to sprain my thumb, my ankle and my knee from sliding into the back of the passenger's seat. Our driver was SO apologetic and nearly in tears. We each assured her we were well, endured the typical emergency staff Q&A, then transferred to a minivan that took us to our destination.

After enduring both surprise and shock, we were a little less than 'fresh' upon arrival. We had been told we were going to taste makkoli, Korean rice wine, and that we were. Our destination was a makkoli factory! We were greeted warmly upon arrival as the staff and videographer had been waiting for us and were obviously worried. After another round of assurances that everyone was fine---even the fellow that bumped his forehead had no bruise---we received a tour of the factory. With a little "reality TV" staging, we were taped as we greeted the factory owner and received a tour of the facilities. The owner was a vibrant middle-aged woman who had lived in New York City for some time and her English was quite excellent. Naturally, she was quite proud of the her creation and also curious to hear an outside perspective.

All in all, the videotaping lasted about two hours after which we were invited to snack on kimchi and handmade tofu while polishing off the fresh makkoli used during the shoot. The VJ asked each of us to write our names and ages on a piece of paper (for his records?) It was in that moment I got sticker shock. I wrote down my name then wrote 30 next to it. I wrote 30, not because I forgot about my birthday the week before---y'all old folks know that happens after a certain age---but because it was the first time I had to write my new age. It was the first time I was about to see a number higher than 30 next to my name. In just a matter of days, I had passed the point of no return. I had become The Man, become "anyone"...as in "Don't trust anyone over 30!" All these thoughts had brought me to that moment of panic in mere seconds. Likewise, I awkwardly attempted to right the wrong I had become.

"That's not right," I blurted. "I'm not 30." Oh, the idiocy... The VJ didn't speak much English but that wasn't beyond his understanding. "Actually, I'm one year older."

"It's ok," he answered and explained that our ages wouldn't appear on TV. I listened to the translation of his reply with relief as I sorted through my mini identity crisis in my mind. Before leaving, we were each handed a 2-liter case of makkoli and that was that. We were headed back to Seoul and the program segment was scheduled to air the following Friday. (You can watch it here!)

At the time, I hadn't realized my ankle was sprained so despite the accident, I agreed to meet my friend Julie in Gangnam once again for a night on the town. She had gotten on a VIP list for Club Eden, one of the more expensive night spots in town (30k won cover, cocktails starting at 25k won) and insisted that we not mope about on White Day, aka Valentine's Day part two. The place only warrants mentioning for two things: 1) How many beautiful / perfect-looking people there were there, 2) how for one brief moment, the vibe in the club reminded me quite a bit of church.

Let me explain.

I live in the westernmost neighborhood in Seoul. Go any further west, and you're out in the next province (county). My neighborhood is made up of common folks and a lot of young families. People of such constitution simply get dressed in the morning. They usually match, (but not always), don't spend a whole lot on clothes and typically choose functional shoes over super hot fashions. In truth, I have no complaints about it at all. Seeing as how American style basically equates to "underdressed" in Korea, I don't have to worry about standing out too much in my 'hood. The other side of the coin is Gangnam/Apgujeong. Some of the folks at Club Eden looked like they spend their lunch money on plastic surgery. (Apparently they spend a lot on lunch....)

At several points, the crowd in the club could've been mistaken for a casting call...just swanky enough, beautiful enough, similar--yet slightly different--enough to fill some fashion or film director's portfolio. For the most part, ladies and fellas were dressed in their finest and most flattering. The more expensive the better. Yes, people who wear shades indoors irk me, but when you pay that much for them, why not? I was clearly, unmistakably, out of my element which I suppose is how I ended up in 'sociologist mode' coming up with conclusion #2.

Club Eden, and places like it, are church for people who don't go to church. Now, depending on your church experiences, (or lack therof), this may require a great deal of explaining. So here goes...

Imagine with me a black box theater, bare with only a standard set of lights hanging from the ceiling. Add a slightly raised platform to serve as a stage. Voila! You're now in a "post-evangelical" or "emergent" church. Those of you in Nashville are like, "Oh yeah, I have been to one of those," or you're presently attending one. (New Song folks!) For those of you with the church frame of reference, imagine the lights on the side panels during worship. (Everyone else, think back to your high school musical and upgrade the light kit it by 5 - 10 years. Now, imagine the audience, jumping up into a spontaneous call for an ovation, and never sitting back down. Some people genuinely want to be standing and the rest are standing because everyone else is standing...) On the church reference, think of an Emergent church worship service...hands in the air, a few people who can't stop bouncing around. A few people who can't stop looking around at the people bouncing around. A couple sitting awkwardly in the corner trying to remember why they came...

And the music. In either case, it's guaranteed to be loud. One is more likely to have a drum kit than the other, but at any rate, the room's speakers will be put to full use. Everyone's attention is drawn to the source of the music. Even the distracted attendees can't help but glance toward it at some point or another. The actors, the worship leader...the DJ.

The DJ is trying to get the crowd hyped, trying to get them to participate in the experience he's presenting. He's highly visible up on the platform yet dwarfed by the influence the music asserts over his audience. And there they are, hands in the air, bouncing up and down--some in a hypnotic like state--expending energy with abandon, believing momentarily that whatever happened before this very moment, no longer matters. The energy in the room compels them to continue. They come, week after week, dressed in their finest and most flattering, because well, where else do they have to go? Where else should they devote their weekend spending money than some place that makes them feel they matter, if only for sake of affording to be there?

As to what worthwhile conclusions can be made of "Techno DJ as Worship Leader" I don't know. (Andy Hunter is the only guy I'm aware of who can legitimately double as both.) But the visual image of the club that night is seared into my mind as one of a common yearning yet to be fully articulated.

The following week, I had fully intended to participate in the Seoul Players' 24-Hour Theater festival. Quite similar to the 48-Hour Film Festival I participated in a couple of years back, participants are teamed up to write, direct and perform a play created within the 24-hour parameter of the production. Required genres, props and starting lines are assigned so the challenge is to be as creative as possible within the assigned limitations.

So, like I said, I fully intended to participate in the event. It's no big deal but I thought it would be good to write something and see it produced immediately since I hadn’t been doing much writing.

In the end, my "let's catch up" dinner with my friend Ruth went a bit longer than anticipated and I was a bit too tuckered out to take on a room of strangers--artistic ones at that. ; ) I thoroughly enjoyed my ginourmous plate of fish and chips instead.

The last weekend of the month, I attended Seoul Fashion Week. Since finding out that the ‘average joe’ or ‘jane’ could get tickets to shows last season, I put all my Seoul pals on alert and spread the word. I set up a group on Facebook and invited everybody I could think of to attend the events.

Even so, I didn’t have the stamina to go through the hassle of buying tickets in advance…since the ticket website was entirely in Korean. I had plans to attend shows on Saturday and Sunday. At the worst, if Saturday’s shows were sold out, I figured I’d pick up tickets for Sunday while I was there. No big deal. He he. Yeah, right.

Before I even leave my house to start the 1.5 hour train ride, I get a phone call from a friend saying that a friend’s friend went down to the event location and was told that all the shows were sold out…Saturday and Sunday. I hesitated for a bit but decided that since I’d put my face and name on an event that went out to 70 people or so and committed to pick up tickets for a couple of close friends, I really ought to haul across town and verify what was going on for myself.

When I arrived, I discovered that tickets were indeed sold out for Saturday night which the girls at the ticket window reiterated as they pointed to the sign taped to the glass. Naturally, I then inquired about buying tickets for Sunday at which point I was told that they weren’t “available.” Since ‘available’ and ‘sold out’ are two different things, I probed a bit more. After 2 or 3 minutes of playing Guess the Missing Word with the staff—their English was better than what little Korean I understand, but still left much to be desired—I was directed to someone a bit more fluent in the buyer’s area of the facility.

This fellow, who was a bit of a toughie with a walkie-talkie and whatnot, told me that yes, tickets were still available for Sunday but that they would have to be purchased on Sunday…unless they were purchased online instead…but the online service wasn’t working. *sigh*

After 1.5 hours of three different trains, that was not what I wanted to hear.

While I was having ‘a moment’, I ran into none other but the Seoul Fashion Report author (Michael) making his rounds and taking photos of Fashion Week attendees. I told him about my little situation. He told me to hang with him for a bit then head back to the press room for some refreshments.

While chatting with one of his photo subjects, another black girl walked over. She was pretty, statuesque, and wearing the most perfect little black hat with a half veil. These were first (proper) introductions for all of us as she and Michael recognized one another from Facebook and she remembered my photo from there as well.

She explained to both of us that she had fallen into the good fortunate of a Buyer’s Pass. Korea is a society based on appearances and she certainly fit the part. I explained to her my ticketless state and she insisted I stick with her for the rest of the evening.

Along with another friend, we spent some down time in the Press Room then headed off to the last show of the day. I went from ticketless to VIP seats at Fashion Week for a second season in a row!

The HaSangBeg show was a bit interesting, if more for the hype surrounding him than the fashion. A random celebrity (I couldn’t see) got mobbed before the show even began and someone else was mobbed at the end. The show also featured at least one of the members of the boy band Shinee for whom HaSangBeg is official designer.

On Sunday, a couple of girlfriends and I plodded out an early to pick up tickets. Unfortunately, “early” turned out to be so late, we weren’t able to make church AND lunch. As one might imagine, our desire for food was the winner in that contest…

In then end, even our plans suffered. We had lunch at Uncle 29 but by the time we finished and trucked it back to the fashion venue, we were 5 minutes late. Apparently, fashions shows started beginning on time at that very moment because we were not only locked out, the show had already started! When we entered the foyer, it was on the big screen. There is a first time for everything and unfortunately, it’s not always convenient…

In other firsts, I couldn’t get into the press room! As in, “No, we don’t care who you’re with, who you know, or that you were in here yesterday because we don’t understand what you’re telling us in English anyway…NO.” That was a bit embarrassing (? Frustrating? Deflating?) after the VIP treatment a mere 18 hours earlier. It was just one more thing to take in stride I guess.

I ended up enjoying one of the shows I had ‘standing’ tickets for even more than the one where I had VIP seating. The designer, Lee Doii, used a Brazilian theme. All of the outfits were glittery and colorful! Definitely the kind of stuff I could see myself wearing if the opportunity arose.

While chatting it up with some friends, we were interviewed by a reporter for Fashion Insight, a local news magazine. Initially she appeared to be curious about who we were and why we were there…then she whipped out a notebook! We were a multi-national/-ethnic brew at the moment so I imagine she was able to get whatever angle she was looking for. Again, moments like that are what major-metro life is all about!

The month of April ended with desperate hopes for some spring weather! We had gotten some hopeful glimpses but nothing near the high temperatures I’m accustomed to after so many years in the American South. Still, hopefulness is a good endnote for any month. ^__^

Love & Hugs,