Sunday, September 16, 2012

in 1986 we moved to korea and lived there for two years, on the very fashionable south side of seoul, south of the river, while i worked teaching english outside of town about an hour and a half away. there were many memorable experiences that came out of those two years, but in some ways the ones involving children were the most interesting. i had left a seven-year-old behind in the u.s. with her mother, but after a year i arranged to have her fly to korea with my sister and visit us. this was in some ways the most wild: people were shocked to see blond and blondish red hair, and you could tell in their looks as we went through town. similarly, they weren't used to seeing a full beard on an american face, and once i caused a traffic accident just by shccking some poor driver who was going seventy five or eighty on a six-lane bridge.

in our neighborhood there were a number of children, and they would sometimes be shooting baskets when i went out to shoot a basket or two. once one kid let his basketball go completely down the drive because he was compelled to catch mine, which was coming near him. i was surprised by his deference. at one point i learned the difference between speaking to a kid and speaking to others, and i practiced it one day with a kid who was more or less following me home. i said: are you my friend? his jaw dropped about a mile. he couldn't believe i had that much korean, even though my language was clearly limited. in general, many koreans were surprised when anyone from another culture learned much korean, but in that way they were surprised often. it was a hard language, but it was possible to learn it.

when my daughter and sister came we showed them the sights, took them out to eat, did all the cool stuff in the city, etc. but what was most memorable to me was that the neighborhood girls came over and genuinely wanted to play with her. there was no question, it was difficult for them to communicate; she learned one word, which was their word for "car". and this one was necessary because they spent much of their time playing badminton, in a crowded space between road and apartment building, and when a car came they had to warn each other of impending danger. the girls invited her home but i'm not sure we were able to take them up on it. we were on a tight schedule.

the reason i mention this time, 1986-1988, is that a new korean rapper has taken the world by storm with a new video called "gangnam-style", which is actually quite outrageous, a mixture of korean and american pop-rap-shock culture, quite entertaining. it turns out, this guy grew up in ban-po dong, went to ban-po elementary school, and this was where we lived, not more than a block from the ko-sok bus terminal in gang-nam gu. he would have been about the same age as my daughter, but at seven or eight, boys and girls don't mix much; i'm sure they never met. more likely he was the kid with the basketball, or perhaps the kid who followed me home. he was, definitely, in the neighborhood.

as an urban place, it actually had thousands of kids; i'd occasionally see ban-po elementary, with all its kids in uniforms, and the fact was, though there were millions of kids, there weren't many foreigners around. people reached out to make friends with us. one flower merchant in the basement market of the ko-sok terminal was especially friendly and invited me out to his house out in the city one night where we and his friends ate barbecue and sang the evening away; this was not unusual as a gesture of hospitality. i came to love ban-po dong though the buses had a certain diesel smell especially at this time of year, the high holiday, when all 12 million of seoul's people head out for their ancestral homelands out in the countryside. my first son was born there, in ban-po dong, in those very apartments, and though we'd left before he was even one, i think it left a mark on him. to this day he loves the strong smell of good korean food.

i'm not sure what my daughter remembers - the badminton, for sure, but more likely the feeling of having dad as far away as a dad could possibly be. there wasn't much i could do about that, except hope we would never be as far separated as we were, again.

"kangnam-style" is irreverent, funky, as my youngest says, "inappropriate" - and he didn't even watch more than about thirty seconds of it. i wanted him to see the unusual dance style, because he's a dancer - but he wasn't going for it. i couldn't vouch that gang-nam always had that style - but it did have a uniqueness, a special feeling to it that i kept forever. i like it that this guy comes out now, and brings gang-nam back to me. it's almost like he's talking to me directly, even though he's clearly outrageous. he's saying: be yourself; get out of the restrictive expectations of the world around you; make your own moves and really dance. the music and the moviemaking will take care of itself. if you're a star, the world will build itself around you - they'll make a risqué youtube, they'll dress you up, and they'll market you. hollywood, of course has its price, but that's another story, and besides, i wasn't hollywood's agent, didn't do a thing to get anyone to just grab their bags and come to the u.s. some did, sure, like him, attracted by the freedom of expression we celebrate. i myself say, that's lost a bit of its lure, after a lifetime of teaching and representing u.s. culture. i could make maybe "toledo style" or "rust belt style" based on my growing up, but people might fall asleep before the video even finished. more later...

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