Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Tailor

Once, in Bangkok, a man called out from the door of his store, where I was wandering by, Hey you wanna suit?  No, I don't really need a suit, I said.  That's ok, just take a look, sir.  I knew very well where this would lead and wanted to be lead almost there but not quite, and so I went in.  We sat down across a coffee table as reams of cloth lined the walls, and binders full of suited models sat atop the table.  A man was summoned to bring me a cup of tea, in a paper cup.  

We started sifting through the photos.  They looked nice.  It was becoming intense.  I didn't want to tell him that they weren't good.  And I didn't want to tell him that I'd think about it even though I was thinking about what to have for dinner.  I'm just not staying long enough, I said, heading out tomorrow.  And that was what I thought would end the conversation but it started a new conversation.  About how they could make it happen.  Teams of workers could put a quality suit together in a day.  No mention was made of the meaning of quality.  I could see one or two of them ready to take action if given the word.  Not that I had chosen a suit.  I may have only stated that this one and that one weren't bad.

In Apgujeong, Seoul we went to look at wedding dresses.  Got in, sat at the coffee table as white walls and mirrors lined the background.  It was the closest I would ever get to going inside the house of mormon.  We were in the complementary position at the coffee table, not opposite but not on the same side, two of them two of us.  The tea came out in a real cup.  The binders of magazines came out too.  Four people all concerned.  The pressure.  The indians from Thailand were back.

At some stage I was instructed that I could leave, which I wanted to.  After all, everyone else was a female and everyone else had some idea of what was being asked for.  I felt like I was leaving a man behind enemy lines though.  Now it would become five on one and these people were ruthless.  I didn't know what had been going on and I wanted to, so I said, honey, aren't you gonna walk me out?  So Jin did, and they followed within a cat's step, concerned that their prize was about to get away.

They came out with a clipboard and asked a lot of questions.  It was like you were about to get in a nasa rocket and go to the moon.  And they wanted to handle other areas of the operation, like make up and so forth.

What stays with you is the sheer intensity of what should be a fun time.  They said you had to pay 30,000 won to try something on.  You might be able to buy some clothes for that.

In Thailand, the men were profuse in their work.  No please don't go without at least trying something on, sir, give us an address overseas and we will ship it there directly.  I'll think on your kind proposal, I said, but actually, I was heading out to eat on it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Gunsan is a little town on the west coast about halfway down Korea.  We took a bus down, one of those luxury three-seaters that are so comfortable that when they stop at a rest break you're already resting and miss it.  When there are three seats from left to right, the aisle is no longer in the middle, but skewed and in line with overhanging compartments.  It forced me to walk out with my head uncomfortably positioned directly above my left shoulder.

We were dropped off at the Gunsan bus station that had a little bit of ghetto about it.  We started to stroll in the direction of what we believed to be a fine restaurant but only got deeper into a ghetto where the only food options would be those we caught ourselves.  So we got a taxi back into town.  This too was not so easy.  The cabbie drove the wrong way for a while and as it seemed we were heading into a deeper wasteland I considered how it wasn't even easy to get back to square one in this place.  He did have one good quality.  As he drove he maintained double the speed limit and tailgated whenever the chance came up, and so while we lost money, it cost no time.  Eventually, after 4,000 won of adventure, we had him make a U-turn. 

We went past the oldest bakery in Korea, which is an achievement you wouldn't think hard to win.  Who likes bread?  Apparently though, this place has been doing business in the same spot since '45.  You couldn’t get in for food easily either.  No easier than finding the first restaurant.  The line at 3pm went out the door and around the corner and was still like that when we went past for another try at 8.  Jieun would have waited the estimated hour and a half just to be a part of history but it was pretty cold out.  And when I line up for bread, I'd like to make it count.  I'd like it to be in the midst of some kind of wheat shortage or when a tornado is coming and everybody is stocking up.  In any event, they have another outlet in Seoul that you can walk into anytime you like.  

The shtick of Gunsan was that it was a colonial port town that didn’t necessarily rid itself of all evidence of colonialism.  There was no purge.  No good riddance to buildings and such.  Order was restored and the new guys probably saw some stuff and said, "hey I didn't like those guys, but we might as well keep some of this stuff here." 

They have a Buddhist Temple inspired by the colonialists that the monks decided to keep.  There is also a bank and post office and things like that still standing in their original style.  We walked into the bank.  An exhibition by a Korean artist was on display in the central area.  If you went off to the side on the other side of a partition, you'd see a bit of history.  There was a black and white picture of a group of guys and a caption that said, "forced labor exploited to work rice paddies."  Apparently the nearby farms grew top-notch rice.  I believe the rice of the area is still good because you could see plenty of guys and ladies riding bikes with big sacks on the back.  They looked pretty happy because they were carting it home for dinner.  

The museum next door to the bank had plenty of role-playing options to take you back to what life may have been like.  There was a small store, a cinema playing black and white on an old reel etc.  You could even try on the garment of a farmer or officer and pose for a picture.  In fact, this museum was where the picture thing got taken to an insanely extreme level.  I think they set it up like that just to mess with me.  Throughout the museum all I could hear were people going, "1-2-3" before a camera went off.  The first few times I waited politely just to the side of their shot.  Later I ignored all countdowns. 

In one shot you could stand next to some Korean farmers who were in the background.  On the side some colonial troops pointed guns at you.  Plenty of people lined up to be in that photo and none of them were armed. 

A shoe store had some wooden shoes to try on, which hurt.  They told you that rubber shoes were particularly rare and at that time, the greatest gift a kid might get.  In 1929 an anonymous benefactor sent scores of pairs over to a kids poor night school.  That touched me for a few moments.  And then my skeptical side wondered if all those pairs made it.  I hoped they did.  I hoped the teachers didn’t stick any aside for their own kids. 

We left this place, as a local lad was out front taking a photo of the building.  He didn’t need to say 1-2-3 because buildings don't generally smile.  He needed to go back ever further to get it all in the frame. As we left, I looked back.  He was backed onto the main road a little bit.  I hoped his shot – and he himself - would turn out all right.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


I'm running along the Han River at seven in the morning and a boat is moving to the shore just ahead of me.  It drifts out of the fog toward the bank where an ambulance waits for it.  Two paramedics get out to meet the boat and you can see there is not much urgency about them.  Their ambulance lights are on only to warn cyclists to go easy.  The siren is off and the tools of their trade are packed away.  A few old men on bikes stop their morning ride to stand nearby and learn more about the catch of the day.  

I have been running up and down the river for a while, but this is the first time I do it early in the morning.  You have to get out of bed in the morning.

At night there are fisherman and I notice that they are not here this morning.  I miss them.  Not that they usually wave to me or anything.  And not that I ever see any of them reeling in a big one.  They're just another presence.

Usually they set themselves up in a spot with six fishing rods all in a row, two meters apart.  When I see that I think how nobody who feels confident about catching a fish, does that.  You must leave the house with six rods in your arms thinking, "well I probably won't come back with anything much but at least I'll be throwing everything at them."  I just hope they put different baits on different hooks, for variety, so the fish come along and go, "hmm, snail, no, not today.  Oh look theres an earthworm on that line, that's more like it, I'll just have me some of that."

Or perhaps casting so many lines in the one spot is a tactic to corner the fish.  A hapless fish comes along and dodges one line and another is ahead so he turns left to get out of the way of that and then gets snared by a third?

What would happen if Santiago in the old man and the sea threw six lines in off his little boat?  And a few big marlins bit all at once?  He was a proud fisherman who never cut rope and even with six big ones all at once, I still don't think he'd write any of them off.  One fish would pull his boat north for a while and then the other would pull him the other way.  In the end his boat would be ripped apart.  And then he'd really have to decide which line to hang onto.

The boat docks and I am twenty metres away.  It's a police boat and the three men in it look pretty serious.  I decide that when I get up there, I am not going to slow down and gawk, and I am surprised these cyclists have.  I really want to look, though.  It is in my instinct somehow.  But I say no to that instinct, no, you're above that, I say, and I look into the middle distance like I'm serious about my running.

These cyclists are the same ones who ring their bell at me when I'm running in their lane instead of the walking lane where people are not walking.  These are the people who stop on this river for one thing - 7-11, where there are hot noodles and cool alcohol.  If you took away the fact that it was cold, and that there was a police boat and an ambulance exchanging cargo and just looked at them, you'd think it was sunset on a beach and they were contemplating the horizon.  Because they were the only ones here that didn't look grave.  They looked just how I would look if one of those fisherman were pulling in a big one.

The paramedics jump the railing and climb down to the boat.  The people on the boat have obviously ordered them to do that.  I wonder if it is a seniority thing because these paramedics are clearly younger.  Or if the police on the boat say, "guys, we caught this and prepared it and brought it all the way to you, you come down here and get rid of it."

I pass them just as they make it to the boat, and I don't look back.

Some time later I pass this spot as I head for home and there are no more bikes or vans of boats, or signs that life had taken pause on the Han River.  And there are no more fishermen.