Thoughts From the Front Row of the Concert

See Michael. See how sweaty and happy Michael is next to band.

See Michael. See how sweaty and happy Michael is next to band.

As the kind of unknown ukulele/mandolin/fiddle hipster nonsense I enjoy tends not to venture to China, a large part of my trip home was to include music. I feverishly scoured concert listings and venue websites looking for shows, gleefully snapping up tickets and planning my attack. If I am going to bother attending a concert, I generally want to attend it as hard as I can. I show up early, I grab whatever beers I need, and then I plant myself in the front row. My feet root to the spot, I set up a tent and a beach chair, and I settle in for joy directly in front of my eyeballs.

Here are a few amalgamated thoughts from the last week, in which I spent 4 of seven nights pressed sweatily against a speaker in a rock club.

–       I am technically in the splash zone. The singer of this alt-bluegrass outfit sweats more than any human being I have ever seen. It has gone from endearingly human to actually disconcerting, and I wonder if I should get him a glass of water. He maybe has a condition. Should we be calling somebody? Getting him on an IV? On another night, Cary Ann Hearst also notes that she and her husband are getting pretty gross and that the front row can probably feel it. “But y’all look like the kinky types so I bet you don’t mind.”

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Wear Your Beanie This Arvo, It’s Cold Outside: My Growing Pan-English Accent

Have you filled a bucket today?

Sometimes it’s pretty, but I’ve been taking pictures of language stuff just so I can have stock images for language-related posts.

There are times when my mental world grinds to a halt after something I have said. A phrase so particularly and enigmatic that I must stop and consider the universe; a trick of words so hilarious or stupid or amazing that I must marvel at my own tongue’s ability not to fall out of my mouth in horror. At other times I stop because I am not sure what has happened, how the words have emerged from me. I wonder at how it is that I have just said such a thing, as though my mandibles were possessed, as though some ghost was in the machine of my articulators.

Sometimes, it is a menu-item so amazing my life halts: “Multiflavoured razor clams.” At other times, it is something that emerges naturally from a conversation, a perfect, globule summary phrase that tickles me beyond comprehension: “Porcelain dildo artisanry.” When the words finally tumble free into the ether, my existence seems to take a sharp inhalation, as though the world has started to rotate in alternate directions.

Never has this been so apparent as when I am picking up Australian lingo.

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Winter is Coming: Cold Wimps

Kite Lady 1

Time to bundle up, children.

The first snowfall in Korea was always heralded with whoops and celebration. Many of my friends – Californians, Australians, South Africans – had so little experience with snow or cold that they found the novelty thrilling. White crystalline shards of joy were falling from the sky! They would run out from their buildings in weather-inappropriate clothing, mouths agape, ready for the cinematic experience of winter. A single snowflake would flutter down and land on their noses, and they would shiver, and then Santa would arrive, and also everyone would be wearing fashionable red sweaters and drinking cocoa.

Within a week the reality of the season would set in like so much semi-frozen street slush. Heavy coats and thick boots, a constant ritual of dressing and undressing as one moved between vastly different temperatures like drifting through biomes on a gale of wind. They grew acquainted with scarves and knitted caps, with bitter chapped lips, with the feel of black ice slamming directly into your face as you topple off your feet. Scores of temperate people were doused in chill, and had to try to understand what longjohns were, why they existed, and how quickly they could acquire as many pairs of them as humanly possible.

Confronted as they were with these bouts of cold, their endurance was tested and they had no available coping skills. They veered directly from plaid shirts and summer shorts into heavy wool sweaters and goose down parkas the second the leaves began to change. They shivered in fur-lined caps and warm mittens, and hugged themselves against mild-to-moderate gusts, the kind that might cause a Canadian or a Norweigian to remark that the weather had finally started to turn pleasant.

A good winter coat is a nuclear weapon, and it must be deployed with care and discretion. Firing it too early leaves one unprepared for the war to come, for the battles still to be fought, for the rising stakes and the falling temperatures. Swaddled completely from head to toe as soon as the thermometres dipped below 10, my friends were completely horrified and utterly shattered as we went below freezing. Wind chipped at their delicate, sun-shaped features, brutalized their hair and their knees, wore their skin open through frigid erosion. With only one coat in their arsenal, they employed their heavy weapons too early, and were left unarmed when the real fight began.

I never feel quite so studly or Viking-like as when I can lord my cold-resistance over my daintier coworkers and acquaintances. While I swelter and melt through-out the summer months, a pool of slovenly sweat-stained dress shirts and damp hair, winter is the time I am allowed to shine.

My childhood in Canada often sounds like a harsh, bitter sort of experience, the way people might describe their arduous training regimens for astoundingly difficult barefoot decathlons. Pounds and pounds of protective gear, bottles stuffed with electrolytes to bolster my fragile young self from the bitterness and difficulty I was to endure. Howling winds carving crenels in my flesh while horrendous cold tunnelled down into my lungs and shredded my alveoli with sickly icicle fingers. Snow monkeys attacking all the while, wolves howling from the deep and the dark. Days with thirty-seven hours of darkness, marked only occasionally by the fires of roving snow bandits, who came to steal your stewed venison and the warm blood from the core of your abdomen.

I wasn’t even from a particularly cold part of Canada, but when I describe the kind of gear necessary to function as a child in Canadian winter, people from elsewhere look horrified. “Snow pants? Parkas? And what exactly is a ‘toque’?” They couldn’t fathom the idea of being subjected to such extremes, for the need of such preventative measures, for the casual, laissez-faire acceptance of the risk of frostbite. Things might just go brittle and fall off of you when it gets cold enough? People live in such places? Do they know that Florida or Thailand exists, and are places you could go instead?

It was hard for them to fathom the joy of a good toboggan, shredding down a wooded hill, the uncontrolled careen and the constant risk of flying into a tree or a patch of brambles. Hours spent constructing a snow fort and chiseling away at its perfect white carapace—the euphoria of sitting inside matched only by the bliss of kicking the structure down with a heavy, rubber-soled boot. Snow angels and dropping an ice puck in the drooping, dangling hood of a childhood friend. Stripping sopping gloves off of your tingling frozen-wet hands and wrapping them around a mug of hot chocolate.

Not that winter is easy or always pleasant. Living in a place with snow or a cold climate means expensive, heavy winter apparatuses to keep the body from freezing. It means getting up to shovel four or five times a day, and cursing the name of the plow driver who piles the inky slush from the road into the end of your drive. It means constantly risking wet socks and trying desperately to step on the parts of the sidewalk that bring the safe, comforting sound of rock salt crunching below your feet. It’s a harsh season, and from a distance, or from the breech of your first real winter, it can be difficult to see through the cold.

But really what winter has always reminded me of is the warmth. The kindled fire in the hearth or the pair of worn slippers waiting just inside the door. Hot cocoa spiked with Irish Crème, or a stout winter beer shared with a friend in a cozy pub. Writing your name across frosted glass, watching the dew form at the tip of your finger, the crystal cracks etching out through the ice. Long journeys in the cold to make it to a warm home, a warm friend, a warm smile. Celebrations that turn the dark and the cold into the light. Most can’t handle winter because they don’t know that the summer and the spring are just a drive away to your mom’s living room, to your best friend’s couch, to two pints or three with a hot bowl of soup, steaming and sweltering in your ungloved palms.

Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

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The Conversion Rate Epiphany

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

Oh, local bills. I hope to one day unlock your secrets.

A wad of damp, sickly looking coloured notes clung to the inside of my pocket like so much lint and gum wrappers. I pulled out said wad before a store clerk and considered the rainbow of wet paper, the cornucopia of meaningless money before me. I tried to peel a few sickly, soggy slips from the clump, as some simple offering, a meagre supplication before this strange new altar. There were numbers on each, and I could read, and I could add, and yet none of those things particularly helped me. Yuan meant nothing to me, much as won had once meant so little, as rupees and baht and euros.

I had no viable concept for local money. The relative values and exchange rates gyrated across my synapses in a disturbing conga beyond my comprehension, visions from only the darkest obelisks sent from the spookiest, least sensible parts of space. I know that six yuan is one Canadian dollar is one thousand won is fifty rupees is something like 98 American cents. I know this fact and can repeat it by heart, can confirm via apps and research, can mentally convert great sums of multiple currencies given enough time, encouragement, and chocolate milk. But when confronted with a shopkeep who would really like for me to stop staring dumbly at him, drooling all over his counter with my bottle of off-brand local cola, I am a little adrift.

Exchange rates are theory, rather than practice. They are factoids kept and shared, interesting anecdotes to tell people back home, numbers to spit out when you want to sound knowledgeable about your environment. But in an actual place that requires your attention, your involvement, and your money, numbers mean nothing without a sense of value. Six yuan to a dollar is all well and good, but what does it mean if a packet of strawberries is forty two yuan?

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Your Concert Photos Suck: A PSA

The band takes the stage. Chatter moves to a hush, anticipation swells in the room like a physical presence, like dozens of extra people filtering into the crowd. Smoke billows, and a hazy purple light bursts through the din, silhouetting the lead singer. Fingers wrap around a microphone, tremble readily over strings, hover above keys. A note is hit, a chord is struck, the show begins. The crowd moves. It is alive.

And you can’t see a damned thing, because the moron directly in front of you is holding their iPad up, over the crowd, a great matte-grey blockade of idiocy.

There is a disturbing trend in concert-going that is widespread in its prevalence, an epidemic of douchery virulent in infectiousness, and vicious in how it desolates enjoyment. A striking number of individuals at concerts these days feel compelled to document every second of the show in photo and video, in tweet and update, on every shimmering electric rectangle they have on their person. Every second must be captured. Every note must be recorded. Every line of sight must be blocked, because if anyone needs to see this show, it is the unwashed masses of youtube rather than the paying customers currently present.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

Oh, hi there.

Still my go-to stock photo for language.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I was on the subway, deep below the earth, talking freely to a friend. My tongue sluiced freely around my mouth. My teeth chattered, unbound. Phonemes flew unabashedly off of my stupid lips. Maybe I was talking about bowel movements, or my visceral hatred for a certain coworker, or fairly deep spoilers to books three, four, and five of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I was expressing untoward personal opinions on Margaret Thatcher, or my thoughts in unicorns in North Korea. Perhaps, at different times, all of these subjects of discussion. In polite company I would usually try to refrain from blabbing on about touchy subjects, about the crude or the vulgar or the spoilerific.

And while I was still largely in polite company, I was in polite company that was speaking in Korean and had no interest in my dumb English conversation. Under the sea of a completely different language, my own sentences were slipping completely under the radar, too fast and too idiosyncratic and too boring for anyone to bother listening in. I had diplomatic immunity of the mouth, and I could say whatever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted.

I had grown used to this luxury. It seemed, for a time, that I was walking around in a glorious English bubble, a great movable sphere of incomprehensibility. No one around would understand me, and unless I tried with particular effort, I couldn’t understand anyone else. It was a gentleman’s agreement on eavesdropping, and the difficulty of translation meant that nobody would bother trying too hard to overhear my tedious communiqués. Every conversation was intimate and private, even if we were sardined into a bus with hundreds of strangers at rush hour, or swarmed by waiters and other diners at a restaurant. No one was going to bother trying to understand me, and thus my words were all free.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Politeness (A Return to Finishing School)

The sea

Bowin’ time.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I still bow a lot.

It’s not over the top: I’m not grovelling or stooping from the waist. I don’t throw myself to the floor and press my forehead deep into the ground to show my deference. But when I meet someone, when someone I know walks into a room, in occasions where I am expected to show respect, I naturally incline. My head dips. I close my eyes obsequiously, I smile, and I bow, because how else are you supposed to greet people? It’s unconscious—my body simply produces the reflex towards a certain stimulus, a flower orienting towards sunlight, a base-level amoebic response generated by hundreds and thousand of previous interactions.

Oh, I also hand money and objects to others using both hands, or sometimes while holding my elbow. I try not to make too much eye contact with others. I shake another’s hand with both of mine. I try not to start eating until the eldest person around has begun, and then I try to pace myself carefully. I act like someone who just got back from Korea and really liked the whole place a little too much.

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My Dumb, Desperate Life: The Price is Right

If contestants were chosen for t-shirt cleverness, we would have been shoe-ins.

If contestants were chosen for t-shirt cleverness, we would have been shoe-ins.

I present to you, gentle readers, a timeline exploring how my life in between teaching jobs has become kind of a cartoon without me noticing.

10:24 a.m. I arrive at the Sony Centre with my cousin Zack, and meet several friends already in line. We have tickets to the Price is Right, and have heard that you have to show up disturbingly early in order to secure your position in the draw to be a contestant. We are in line between two elderly people in wheelchairs, and four young people conversing suspiciously in Czech.

10:43 a.m. It is fairly cold outside, and we send off members of the group for the first of several coffee runs of the day. Hannan was brought several camping chairs and we begin huddling together with them.

11:02 a.m. We have discussed it in line, but several people were not previously aware that this is The Price is Right Live. Drew Carrey is not present, nor are any of the remaining Barker’s Beauties, and no matter how memorable we act when we are called down for contestantship, we will never be immortalized in daytime television history. Deep disappointment washes through the line-up, which has ballooned to 17 people.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Restaurants (My Kingdom for a Bing-Bong)


Time for Korean food by the bucket.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

A Korean restaurant in Korea is a beautiful, efficient kind of place. You enter, sit at your table, and order essentially within the first moments. The menus are not terribly voluminous, and the assumption is that if you entered this restaurant in the first place, you knew what you were coming for. (Many restaurants specialize in exactly one kind of dish, so you say how many of the foods you want and in what, if any, variations.) The waiters disappear, and rush back with your steaming bowl or your rack of raw ingredients and leave you to it. They will not check on you, they will not make small talk, they will not feign interest, and they will not interact with you unless they you summon them by the convenient doorbell on your table (bing-bong!). They give you food and then leave you alone, and at the end of the meal you take the bill, which was already at your table, and pay elsewhere and never ever think of leaving them a tip. The people operating the restaurant are unobtrusive, practically invisible, more spectral visions of humans, ghosts carrying trays that exist only in your peripheral vision.

Which is to say that a Korean restaurant in Korea is my idea of paradise.

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