Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It is and isn't what appears to be...

I was out during the day for a quick walk around when the familiar site of these dancing girls was heard off in the distance. Each time I see these girls, I just feel incredibly sad for them. It has to be because I have never seen such displeasure in all my life at doing something that should be fun. Here they are, young but lack any vibrancy. There is a mechanical way about them, that lacks any human quality. They seemed to repel everyone around them. I noticed that most of the men that walked by didn't even look at them. They didn't pause or stare. You will see a couple of them in the background.

There seemed to be a sense of shame associated with what they were doing. Instead of having fun, it was like watching 'careless dancing'. Nothing about it was in sync. I decided in haste to film these girls, just to show this total lack.

It was like watching corpses dance. I had wondered to myself, what took their joy away? Life is often that way. Can you actally take something you love to do and then suck all of the life out of it? Or is it that you allow something to take it away from you?

Just a thought...from few minutes out of my day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lipstick and rouge, Cafes of Daegu in a cooler season

I am sitting at Cafe Francesco in Chilgok, a district in Daegu that is more like a suburban hideaway in the mountains. There is no harsh reality, no metro to hear the panhandlers play for coins (though I know that most would prefer folding cash). There is a sort of pretense that plays out in the cafes. The absence of generations is evident. The crowds that frequent the cafes are usually the young students that come to congregate, giggle, and yes, be young. There is still a certain kind of sophistication that is blended in the cafes with the effort to emulate those that are around the world. What makes them Korean is that the menus seem to always have the phrase, "I'm sorry, we don't have that today."These cafes are not like the ones in more urban areas, that really have a cross section that filter through. No, the drama here are more like the kind of dramas you would see of the young and uncertain kind. The unknowing and inexperienced kind. Not much changes. No matter where you go, drama is drama. There are days where I do wish I had a remote that would enable subtitles, and others when I could just hit the mute button.
At another cafe, they have a running track that cycles jazz standards, I know because after about 45 minutes the same rotation starts again. It was a short lived love affair, the illusion broken with the third playing of "As Time Goes By". I wanted to say, "No Sam, please don't play it again." Time did go by, and I realized that nothing substitutes for the real sound of a languished saxophone player in a deserted square, playing under a street lamp in the dead hours of a cool Paris night. It is a cruel joy to witness and striking to hear the emotion of someone breathing those notes into life.
There is one thing I have noticed with all of these cafes. There is no Korean identity. Instead, they try to create an environment that is associated with either America or Europe. As much as they try, there can only be one Eiffel Tower. Nothing beats the original, or an original thought. That has been the puzzle for me, here in Korea. Koreans seem to want to be anything BUT Korean. Then I look around and realize now why only the young seem to be attracted to these coffee houses...it is precisely for that reason.
As I sit in a cafe, my thoughts are distracted, noting a map of Belgium, and wondering why the countries surrounding Belgium are spelt in English....

Here's looking at you with lipstick and rouge...kid.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Licensed to be foreign

There are benefits to being the outsider. The foreigner that has come and observed, taking my little notebook with me along the way to actually see the way things are displayed and realize that as with any culture it is never all you see. You don't have to understand the language to understand the people. Some of the things you see displayed, such as people of the same gender holding hands as a display of friendship. People touch each other here to communicate their friendship and when someone asks to befriend you, it is often pondered with great thought by most people. I have found that is extraordinarily touching that coming from a society that is, for lack of a better word...are racially bigoted.

I haven't really thought of it in that way. Not seriously, but there is a lot of truth in it. Partially, not many foreigners reside on a permanent basis in South Korea. Foreigners are usually viewed as just passing through, so there is no 'real issue'...that is unless one decides to marry a Korean. There are many viewpoints about this, as unique as all of the races are in the world. There are views that is it more difficult for men than women, because a marriage of a foreign woman promises certain shame from their family.

Yet, I have to say that I have been amused with some of the perceptions I have run across. I have seen a child gesture towards a black person with wide eyes, and whisper, "African", as if in awe with a tinge of fear. My reaction to this was realizing this was a direct reflection of how sheltered Korea really is from the rest of the world. And, it has been by design. When you look at trade with Korea, you do see the air of protectionism in this country. You can by foreign made goods, but you will be paying top dollar. Koreans buy Korean goods, but they do let some foreign trade in.
As I have watched more cameras in the neighborhoods go up, I have often wondered about this peaceful country. Loud, boisterous behavior is frowned upon, save the children being children. However, there is a bit of the 'Stepford Wives' mentality I have seen routinely displayed. A group think, vice the individual voice, is viewed as safe. Where the dreams of many are to become the company man. A friend of mine was overjoyed with the ambitions of her fiancee to become an employee for one of Korea's largest companies. She was beaming with pride and was honestly surprised when I just nodded my head. I wanted to be happy for her, but it was sad. I saw a life with the typical treadmill. Not everyone wants the same thing. I am very aware of that. For me, I would start shopping for a funeral plot. I couldn't even fake a smile.
I had more regard for a young bar owner I met. He created a little place that took him seven years to get going. He made it with his imagination and passion for music. A devotion for the love of 'The Beatles', which in these times, makes him a bit dangerous for the typical box of Korean culture. The music is his life, his passion, and in a way...this little bar is his way of being an individual. There are no black suits, neckties, and cubicles. Velvet chairs, a stocked bar and Penny Lane plays. For those of us who are used to seeing the image of the social outsider, it's nothing new. However, there is something special when you find places like this in a place where everyone is striving to belong. Too afraid to an individual. Being the individual is like a fantasy to most people here. I heard the real story of how much courage it took to raise his head above the crowd. To create a place that didn't focus on a market segment, but focused solely on his passion.
Yet, when I see images that celebrate the individual genius...in a world where everyone wants to belong...I cheer. Maybe it is because they have had the courage to live the life they really dream...and not live the life of someone else's dream.

Just some notes from my notebook...foreign girl...signing out.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to make Korean Children Grow Taller... (Here is another insecurity we can use to empty your pocketbook)

It has been a week of new businesses opening up. It has been like a revolving door, watching some businesses fail and within a few weeks, someone else comes to the neighborhood. People haven't given up hope here. With every new business opening, the neighborhood watches to see how they are going to try to attract your attention. So out come the go-go dancers, the big balloons, the huge floral wreaths and they give it a go.
We all have seen so many things that are marketed solely based to deal with the gnawing insecurities that are used to afflict us throughout our lives. Looking good is important to the world. It is often those outward things that are used to gain favor with the world around us. This has made plastic surgeons rich, the cosmetic industry stable, dentists smile, and the diet industry benefit from the blossoming waist lines around the world. So with everyone trying to look like everyone else to have a sense of belonging, why on earth would this also not apply to height? Asians are not known for being incredible tall, and since height has now also been tied to success, why not create a product to make people taller? Outside of shoe lifts and higher heels, one company has done that. I was stunned. Imagine if you could market to short parents...and tell them, you had a miracle product that if used early enough, say around puberty, you could make their children grow taller. Never mind genetics. DNA, what is that? Just put on these special shoes, and within a couple of years, your child will grow. I guarantee it. I just could not believe the endorsements for this product, that actually got it to market here in South Korea. Of course the children going to grow taller during puberty! My son, was able to achieve a height greater than his parents because the tall genes were going to win from my side of the family. Why? Because mothers are always right. No special shoes were needed to enhance my son's growth.
I looked at this shop and watched the video that continuously played. Taller children were walking over to a smaller child on a basketball court and laughing at the child. I marvelled at the tactic, preying on the fears and insecurities of the weak. It's done everyday, from the moment a child has their first confrontation by a bully in a playground to the bullies of the boardrooms across the globe. It's life and it can be tough out there.
The openings continue with two dancing mascots for a local coffee shop. They gladly posed for me. In English, I said, "Smile for the camera!" One of guys said, "But you can't see our faces!" I said, "I may not be able to see your faces, but I still can tell if you you smiling or not." It's all in the attitude. Now, I need to see if I can get some of those special shoes...I would like to grow a little taller too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Somebody's got to be surrounded by all these men...might as well be me...

A little of night life, once in a while, is good for circulation. It was one of those nights where the moon was full, the weather was right, and I had made a promise to see a friend downtown. Still, for some reason the night felt young and while I was standing there I saw a group of soldier boys heading my way. I have to say their radar was up, looking for something to do on a Saturday night and someone pointed me out, remembering meeting me (I can't say I remembered him). I smiled and greeted them. There is a place that is a legend, Julliard, that is spoken about in military circles. When you go to Daegu, you are obliged to order what is known as the 'flaming Dr. Pepper' . Instead of going home, I was dragged along...not that I was protesting, I mean being the only woman surrounded by a bunch of muscle bound men, is not exactly something to complain about.
I won't tell you what all of the secret ingredients were, but here we were at the bar getting them to show us what the fuss was all about. Two guys ordered...and we watched the show.
I think I was the brave one of the bunch, because I sat at the bar, shooting pictures of the bartender taking on Tom Cruise's role in Cocktail. Except this bartender liked to play with fire.
He filled his mouth up with Bacardi 151 and blew out the candles....and set the bar aflame. He looked tired. I can't imagine how many times he had served the drink, but this was one of the first times I felt like I just witnessed bartender burn out. I was thankful that his expertise did not fail him. I smiled thanked the guys for a good show. It was time for this gal to click her heels and say, 'there is no place like home'.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"I am Happy"

It is the end of the week, and on my way home, everyday I am chased down by my favorite stalker, "Emily". There have been days where she has seen me pass by and bolts out of her mother's shop chasing me down, often out of breath just to say, "Hello! I am happy!" The weather doesn't matter to Emily. Emily runs, just to ensure I hear her tell me her name and that she is happy today. Even when Emily isn't in the best of spirits, she will look up at me and burst into a smile and chase me down. She stops me and I look over at her mother who smiles and shakes her head.

I am the strange woman that walks down the road, with this understood ceremony that at a certain time of the day, I am obligated to greet this creature, and I realize that even when I am not feeling happy...I must for Emily.

Emily has become my shot in the arm at times. This little girl who doesn't know fear, runs to exchange a few words with me everyday. The most powerful declaration in the world, "I am happy." She doesn't know the other words, like angry, sad, or the anti-happy word of 'unhappy'. She doesn't want to know those words for they hold no meaning for her. All she knows is she is happy, and she is sticking with that game plan.

After a long day, I often feel like the elderly that I see pushing their burdens down the road. Heavy with the years and the load. Many people don't want to look at the elders because in part they don't want to be them. They have the years they have spent, and often just when looking at them, you feel their lives follow them. What knowledge is learned is not necessarily wisdom.

With Emily...I startled her when I asked to take her picture. It threw her off balance, this was new, but there she was wiping away the serious life pondering thoughts from my mind. She doesn't have to think about being happy. She just is. It is often when we think too much, about whatever that may be, is when we get in the way of what 'happy' really means. Emily is happy being Emily. Emily is happy to chase me down everyday that she can to remind me of her own happiness.
"I am happy." For so many, it's an incredibly hard sentence to say.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fading Summer Hues

White linen tablecloths and the sound of a wine being uncorked pops in the background. The silence of quiet conversation and the air is alive with an under bite of an odd cool breeze without the rain. People had told me Daegu was hot and incredibly humid. In truth, this was not an unbearable summer for me. Yes, there were days I felt the ache of the heat, but I compare that with 7 years in Miami and found there were no comparison. An endless summer is not noted so much when everything remains the same. There is no cause or concern to really change anything . A hurricane here or there, just enough to raise the fear threshold for a bit and then there is the recovery after a storm. There is no appreciation for constant days of sun and heat, only to feel the limited bite of what passes for winter. There is no wrath in the cool winds that are actually more of a relief than a regret.
However, I am in Daegu, and the days of summer are not without a number. They are given an allowance of days, so there is the earnest desire to make use of them. There is no endless abacus. Fall is coming soon, and the shops are changing their displays to darker hues to roll in the announcement that yes, time is moving forward. This has been a year of drama in Korea. I should say the two Koreas, that long for the day when there is a form of reunification. However, with the underpinnings of dramas and one side having scarcity issues and the other, a booming economy, bright signs of hope came with talks of workable solutions with a sense of calmer and cooler heads coming to the table. The wild west show has been put on hiatus as this region is seeing a number of changing in the region of politics...with the terms good and bad as changeable as the seasons.
The harvest is coming in with huge crops. I don't know what they are using here in Korea, but it definitely is not miracle grow. I myself have planted some things this year, and it makes me feel like I do have a green thumb after all. Really, all of the work is done by nature. I don't have anything to do with it at all.
The religious icons are invading Korea, as I noted the chipped statue and realized I had largely ignored the western religions here. They do exist, but I just nod and walk by. I am reminded of past readings of where literature would cite of man's need to pray for the security of commerce and the industry of a said nation. I note the beliefs with a bittersweet edge to them, only because I frown. I still look at all of the mythologies mankind...not women...has created. Yet, women shown as birthers and subservients to enhance the cause of man. To keep us in our place we are shouldered with the burden of creation of sin. We were the first sinners, not men. So in this light, I am happy to reject that view from mankind.
On the lighter side, I am posting this as a plea, for the spirit of imagination to fall upon this country. It possibly can't all have been said and done before. Not to the point that Korea has to have a McKorea...oh wait, it does? I did notice it does say chicken...so I guess you will miss out on the two-all beef patties.