I have been infatuated with giant pandas since high school. I’ve done reports, painted pictures, collected magazine articles, and have found myself drawn to any and all panda paraphernalia (pandaphenalia, if you will). I owned a panda mask, and far more stuffed pandas than I’d care to admit. If I were older, fatter, and hairier, people would find my borderline obsession to be creepy, but my boyish good looks make it appear innocuous, like my tendency to draw penises when I have had too much to drink.

So why am I so drawn to these creatures? Perhaps it is because they encompass a set of characteristics I find particularly attractive. They’re clumsy and cute. They are vegetarians in spite of their carnivorous digestive systems. They demonstrate a general disinterest in having sex in a cage while a team of scientists watches. And they’re Chinese.

I even studied Mandarin for four semesters in college, believing that if pandas were to eventually develop the power of oral communication, it would be in the national tongue of their motherland (Cantonese-speaking pandas would require translators).

So it was that I set out to Chengdu, China, to visit the Panda Research Center and hopefully to realize my lifelong dream of holding the majestic bear in my arms. The Lazybones Hostel organized a tour for me, and I left with two Swedish girls, our Chinese shuttle driver, and my internal trepidation, excitement, hopes, and rehearsed Mandarin conversations I might be able to have with the pandas.

The shuttle driver giddily led us around the base, clearly as excited as I was. Though a tall man, he was fleet of foot and skipped throughout the park, giggling. The Swedish girls found this entertaining, but I understood his enthusiasm.

First we observed the giant panda’s red-headed cousin, the red panda. These raccoon-like critters are also cute, but like all other animals (imaginary or not), when compared with the giant panda they look like mutated, hateful abominations. Comparing a red panda with a giant panda is like comparing a Caucasian baby with an Asian baby; the formers just don’t measure up.

After seeing the red pandas amble about and make feeble attempts to be as cute as their cousins, we basked the beauty of God’s greatest creation: the giant panda. We saw mothers, fathers, and babies lounge and eat in their faux habitats, and we acknowledged that only 1,600 have the luxury of doing these things in the wild. Before leaving, we stopped in a panda-themed café to watch a panda propaganda film (a propapanda film! That’s two panda-puns!). I noted the narrator’s assumption that English speakers use the popular phrase, “You’re behaving like a baby panda!” to chastise our children when they are finicky eaters. We do not do this.

The driver again led us through the park, frolicking this time to the exit. Since he didn’t speak English, there was no way to know our itinerary for the day. Now we were leaving, and I had not accomplished my mission. I had to speak up or forever live with regret.

“Wait!” I cried. “Can I hold one?”

The driver happily complied, and for the price of 1,000 Yuan, I entered an enclosure and donned the protective smock and gloves.

Before I knew what was happening, I had a squirming ball of black and white fur in my arms, about the size of an obese adult cockerspaniel. He nibbled on the half-apple I was holding. The handlers recorded photographic evidence of the event. I forgot all of my Mandarin, but the panda understood me.

“We are one.”

I can’t be certain whether it was me or the panda that thought this, because our minds were completely intertwined. There was no time, only us.

But there actually was time, and I think it was only about sixty seconds. Then it was over. I was given a token mouse pad, and the Swedes, driver, and I returned to the hostel, away from Nirvana.

Since holding that baby panda, I have changed as a man. When one looks into the face of perfection and sees it smiling back, there is no greater reward. Death no longer frightens me, and in life, I have done what I set out to do. Mission accomplished.

On another note, people often comment about how expensive a 1,000 Yuan (roughly $200 USD) panda-holding fee is, but I just explain that years from now I’ll be able to look into my grandchildren’s sweet, innocent eyes and say, “Decades ago I felt the majesty of the giant panda in my very own arms, and that’s something you’ll never be able to experience. Because now they’re all dead. All of them. We tried to save them because they were cute, but I guess they weren’t cute enough. You should have been born sooner.”

You can’t put a price on that.


“What the hell did he just say?”

A periodic variation on this theme permeated our Thanksgiving party every time Jean-Philippe spoke. He spoke English, but it wasn’t the Queen’s English, nor the Prince’s, nor the Prime Minister’s, nor the President’s, nor the City Councilman’s; for the first half hour, it was almost unintelligible. Was Jean-Philippe French? Was he Scottish? Was he both? Can you use “joie de vivre” and “shite” in the same sentence?

Curious and determined, I made conversation, sifting through the bog of his accent to unearth his mysterious origin. He had an acerbic sense of humor which I brought out by carefully peppering our conversation with flirtatious and overly friendly remarks. We verbally abused each other throughout the night, but it was good-natured. As we ate, someone made the suggestion that we go around the circle and say why we are thankful for the person next to us (Thanksgiving parties are wont to bring out the “corny” in cornucopia, but after making that joke I can’t really complain), so I made a short speech about the deep friendship Jean-Philippe and I shared.

He busted my balls for it.

From what I gathered, he hails from France and learned English in Scotland, which accounts for his unique accent. He works hard labor for nine months of the year and travels for the other three, because life is too short to be a slave to your job. And he’s right.

This is how he ended up at our international Thanksgiving party in the first place. My friend randomly met him on a bus and told him he was more than welcome to accompany her. So he did.

And then we all said goodbye, and I never saw him again.

Until February.

I arrived at the Lazybones Hostel in Chengdu, China, feeling ragged. I needed to eat and clean my body, laundry, and spirit.

Later in the day, as I sat at one of the hostel’s computers, I heard an unmistakable accent at the front desk. Was it Scottish? Was it French? What the hell did he just say?

A man I had met once at a Thanksgiving party in Jeju-do, South Korea, was standing in the lobby of my hostel in Chengdu, China.

“You motherfucker!” I greeted him, laughing.

We caught up, did a bit of eating and exploring around Tianfu Square, and even went camera shopping together. Along with a Scottish couple, we visited a Buddhist temple and witnessed some of the ceremony.

And then it was over. And Jean-Philippe went off to his next destination.

I don’t know if I’ll ever hear his barely intelligible dialect again, but I do know this: it’s possible. Running into Jean-Philippe again has enlightened me to the fact that the world is a lot smaller than it seems. And if something doesn’t make sense to you at first, just give it a half hour. Maybe you’ll even revisit it in the future.

 


“Inebriation knows the liquor. Love sees the heart.”

This was the last English phrase I read before boarding the night train from Xi’an to Chengdu. It read more like a sponsor for relationship counseling than for alcohol. Although I was sober and alone at the time (two things I often try not to be), and although the advertisement doesn’t really make sense, I believe it is true.

I bought some snacks in the train station and boarded the vehicle that would aggravate anyone’s hypochondria. And hemorrhoids. I had bought a “hard seat” train ticket to Chengdu, the third city on my Chinese itinerary, and a hard seat it was. The two troll-men sitting directly across from me were pro bono.

I should have taken more time to “know the liquor” for sanity as well as asepsis.

I leaned against the window and attempted to read, while ignoring the slurping, mucous-hacking, lung-hocking, and the shrapnel of sunflower seeds being picked out of teeth and spat onto the table directly in front of me. The men looked like they had been through a lot, but never a shower. And while ideally I like to judge not by appearances, it’s difficult to do that when you’re convinced you’ll get Hepatitis just by making eye contact with someone.

Besides, these men never covered their mouths when they coughed, heartily blow-drying my face with stale air from the bowels of their tar-caked lungs. So fuck ‘em.

Only their eyes didn’t repulse me. They looked like caramel-coated gems, rich with life or maybe macular degeneration. But they had beautiful, saturated eyes.

I attempted to close my own and rest, but my legs were the only things I could get to go to sleep. For most of the ride I experienced a zombie-like half-consciousness, nodding off and awakening to find young females standing in the aisle or sharing seats next to me. I ignored them.

You can’t be unchivalrous if you’re unconscious.


Penis Envy?

02Aug11

I spent my final day in Xi’an making a daytrip to Starbucks before heading out to the train station. After my coffee, I stepped out to smoke one of my cigarettes, which I only purchased because there was a panda on the tin. Chinese tobacco marketing strategies are ruthless.

I lit the cigarette like a suave panda, pretending it was a nutritious bamboo shoot and not a carcinogenic bastardization of indigenous North American ritual. A woman in her 40s or 50s saw this and motioned for me to sit with her.

I offered her a cigarette, and she declined, producing a pack of her own slim brand. She began to ask me questions in Chinese, and I responded with disjointed caveman-esque answers. I explained where I was from, where I was going, and where I had been.

After about five minutes, she decided my openness and honesty gave her the necessary foundation for her next question. I’m still not exactly sure what it was. I can only speculate.

With her hand on my thigh, she leaned in and quietly made her inquiry. Then she raised each of her index fingers and placed them about an erect penis’s length away from one another. She brought her fingers together and seemed displeased. She drew them apart and seemed satisfied.

I hoped she would not try to measure me, as I was flaccid and frightened.

Struggling to alleviate the awkwardness my dick and I felt, I told her I had to ride a train instead of her. She wanted me to sit with her outside Starbucks for a little longer, and after about three minutes, I finished smoking my own tobacco-filled phallus and said farewell.

Hopefully someday she finds the penis she’s looking for.

I’m not sure if she was a prostitute or just a randy stranger, but I do know that for us to have exchanged fluids, we would have to exchange cash. Because there was no way I would sleep with her without some sort of monetary compensation, or at least an extra paid vacation day.

As I walked away, I imagined what our conversation might have sounded like in English.

“Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been? How big is your pecker?”

The answer to all of these of course is, “It depends.”


Huashan

02Aug11

For the second day in a row I nearly failed in my attempt to board the proper bus. On this day I planned to hike Huashan, one of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains, so I arrived at the bus terminal an hour early. Unfortunately, my propensity for punctuality far exceeds my ability of observation, and I wandered between buses for fifty minutes before actually finding the correct one. There was one empty seat left. Had I been any later, I would have missed the trip entirely. That seat was for me. On this morning, the Taoist deities were in my favor.

After reaching the destination, three English-speaking Chinese lads exited the bus with me and asked if I was going to hike Huashan. I told them yes, and they asked if I would like to accompany them. This was prior to losing my naiveté somewhere along Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, so I agreed.

Luckily, these young men had no intentions of cannibalizing me along the trail (or if they did, they were very ineffective), and we traded pleasant conversation and snacks as we trekked through blankets of fog along snow-glazed paths.

As the hike became steeper and my sneakers became snowier, my grip became shittier and the 35 Yuan price tag on a pair of slip-on shoes from a tiny mountainside shop became more reasonable. These rubber-bottomed gripping-slippers accompanied me to the 2154.9 meter summit of the south peak and now they accompany me virtually everywhere else. One of my companions also made the purchase, and we were able to carry on hiking without sneaker-surfing off a precipice.

Eventually I needed to separate from my Chinese friends, because I would miss the return bus to Xi’an if I continued at their speed. We took a photograph, and I finally learned what their names were (in order of progressive bizarreness): Derrek, Prince, and Stone. I didn’t make any Purple Rain jokes, and they didn’t have to pretend to understand what I was talking about.

It’s always awkward saying goodbye to transient friends, because chances are I’ll never see them again, but out of habit I always say, “See you later.” And after I realize the idiocy of what I said, I usually mutter, “Well, maybe. Probably not,” as I trip while walking away.

I was now alone and with an empty water bottle, and I didn’t know if I was further from dehydration or the peak. As my thirst increased, so did the price of water from the crooks working as vendors along the way. One tried to charge eight Yuan for a twelve ounce bottle (about five times the market value). I told him I’d rather die of thirst on principle.

I couldn’t even fill my bottle from the bathroom taps along the way, because none of them worked. A Huashan conspiracy, perhaps.

Regardless, the snow on the mountain didn’t taste half bad, and considering the altitude, it might not have been polluted.

And it was free.

Because it fell from the sky.

Just like all water.

Trudging along, I crammed banana chips into my face like a zombie would brains, and with icy toes I finally made it to the top. Someone took the obligatory picture, a reminder of why I did the hike in the first place: so I could tell people about it.

In the interest of time, I took a cable car to a shuttle bus. This was a mandatory service in the interest of safety, so I would have to pay for a ticket or be stuck on the mountain forever. This possibly accounts for 40% of all Taoist hermits residing on Huashan.

I missed the return bus to Xi’an. Fortunately, so did a bunch of other people, and we took a more expensive, possibly privately-run bus home. I didn’t care about the cost; I probably would have offered one of my fingers (but not the good ones) to get home and pass out. Relatively scam-free, I had dinner, and took my weary legs to dreamland.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


On my second day in Xi’an, I rose early and set out to see the world famous terracotta army. In the back of my mind I entertained the idea, as all repressed megalomaniacs do, that I might be the one to bring them to life and usher the world into a new era under my rule. I also entertained the idea of getting some of the best coffee China has to offer- McDonald’s coffee.

Once caffeinated, I made my way to what resembled a bus terminal. Unsure of how to procure a bus ticket, I approached a queue and waited. I made sure to follow the unwritten rule of line-waiting in Asia: If you’re not standing close enough to moo shu pork the guy in front of you, someone else will. And then you have to wait longer.

When I arrived at the window, the man could not decipher the bastardized Chinese-English mixture coming out of my mouth. Or he was frightened. Regardless, he pointed in the direction of the English scholar at the next window.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Bus 306?” I asked back.

“Where are you going?” she repeated slowly, and more loudly.

“Terracotta soldiers,” I replied.

“Where are you going?” she asked even louder.

For some reason, I had never learned the characters for “terracotta” in Chinese class.

“Terracotta soldiers,” I tried again.

“Where are you going?” she asked even louder, clearly frustrated. Almost as frustrated as the long line of native Chinese speakers standing behind the ignorant foreign dickhead who clearly had no idea what he was doing. I thought getting to the most famous attraction in Xi’an would be easier.

“I’m telling you!” I said, exasperated. Defeated, I walked away, swearing under my breath.

As it turns out, you’re supposed to buy tickets on the bus, and they’re only 7 Yuan.

I sat down on bus 306, and once again, my guardian angels Kevin and Amy accompanied me on my journey. We saw the three pits of terracotta warriors (and their horses), viewed an informative video in a 360 degree theater, and even saw some of the methods being used to excavate the figures. A “No Photography” sign was strategically placed in front of one of the archeologists’ stations, so that when the project is finally finished, they can deny that they just used scotch tape and hot glue to reconstruct the bodies.

The only disappointment I faced all day was my inability to breathe life into even a single warrior.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The Bro Cab

21Jul11

In almost one year, my Korean language abilities have blown up from nonexistent to “I can sort of bullshit with cab drivers” proportions.

On Monday, I hailed a cab and showed the driver the address of my destination. After a short while of driving, he asked me, “Kabasseyo?”

I had no idea what that meant. I thought it had something to do with going somewhere, but I told him I didn’t know. Then he gave me an ultimatum.

“Kabasseyo? An-kabasseyo?”

The man clearly wanted an answer, so I gave him one.

“Kabasseyo,” I said, opting for the positive variation.

The driver only spoke Korean, and when I explained that I only knew a little, he called me an idiot. Maybe he thought I wouldn’t understand that either.

I called him evil, and told him I only spoke a little Korean but a lot of English.

“Speak English,” I said in Korean.

He told me his situation was similar, but he spoke no English at all and only Korean. I called him clever.

He asked if I had a girlfriend. Watching to make sure he didn’t get fresh, I told him yes.

He asked if she was Korean. I said she was Canadian. He said I should have two girlfriends, one Canadian, and one Korean. I laughed and said they could never meet. After telling him that I was American, he decided that I should have three girlfriends: an American, a Canadian, and a Korean.

Laughing, I told him I liked the idea, because I didn’t know how to say, “I can’t even satisfy one girl.”

Then I exited the cab, pondering how to fill the remaining two girlfriend positions. The cabbie drove off somewhere, probably to an annual “whistling at girls” convention, where they give away women’s rights as a door prize.


After a week in Beijing, Danielle set off for Vietnam. I did not join her, because the only other people I know who have gone to Vietnam ended up getting into a war there.

Instead, I drank morning beers with some Germans and the owners of the hostel, and then I set out to find a tiny alarm clock. Up until this point, I had been relying on Danielle’s rise-and-shine attitude to combat my own cow-in-the-road lethargy.

I ventured off to a multi-story market and met a woman who spoke English. She chatted with me for a bit, and agreed to help me find a suitable alarm clock. She even helped me negotiate the price, and it wasn’t a scam!

After a nap at the hostel, I traveled to the Beijing train station, bought some snacks, and set off for Xian, the second city on my Chinese itinerary.

The generous people at the Lotus Hostel had booked me a “soft sleeper,” and I softly slept in a narrow room along with five other passengers during the all-night ride.

The train arrived in Xian sometime early the next morning. While at the station, I made an attempt to purchase tickets to Chengdu, my next destination. I succeeded, but the woman assured me that the most comfortable accommodation that they could offer me was a “hard seat.” From what I understood about hard seats, they were hard, and they were seats. Three days later, I would find both of these things to be true.

A Canadian couple next to me was attempting to book two “sleepers.” Their names were Kevin and Amy, and they were the only other Westerners on the train. We introduced ourselves and went off to our respective lodgings. I set out to find the “Qixian (Seven Sages) Hostel,” ranked the 6th most spectacular hostel in the world by Hostelling International.

The heart of Xian is surrounded by a large stone wall, marking the original border of the city. I entered the gates and ambled around wide-eyed, schlepping my borrowed backpack with me. It wasn’t long before I heard cat calls from some prostitutes in their rooms along the street.

“Hellohellohellohello,” they called. It was the most erotic English they knew.

“Hello,” I smiled and waved.

It was only 9:00 am. I hadn’t even gotten rid of my morning wood yet. They must have known.

I arrived at the hostel, and promptly did my laundry. After dumping my clothes into the machine, I opened what I thought would be detergent, but was actually live crabs.

In addition to crabs, the Qixian Hostel is home to cats, kittens, and a large, black dog. These friends would often accompany me during meals, and along with good coffee and food, they were the reasons I ate at the hostel so often.

I spent the day exploring the city. It was more difficult to navigate than Beijing, largely due to the lack of things like street signs. I perused the walled perimeter, and made my way to the city center, where the historic Bell and Drum Towers stand. Traditionally, the bell was struck to signify dawn, and the drum to signify dusk. In the West, we just look at where the sun is. Both towers offer magnificent views of the city and the carcinogenic haze blanketing it.

After playing American Quasimodo in Xian’s historic bell tower (and allowing some Chinese people to photograph my exotic foreign face), I walked to the Drum Tower on the opposite corner.

While strolling through the city center, I noticed a man publicly shaving his head, right there in the plaza! Perhaps a Chinese “Locks of Love” event was being held! Then I noticed the man was actually ripping large chunks of his hair out. Unlike the blind boy in the Forbidden City, I did not take a picture of this man; my quota for inappropriate photography had been filled.

Inside the Drum Tower, vendors were selling various musical trinkets. I, myself, am a sucker for various musical trinkets. The vendor began playing a small, egg-shaped instrument made of black pottery called a “xun.” Knowing that haggling is part of Chinese culture, I took a shot.

“Duo shao qian?” I asked, meaning “How much money?”

He told me it was sixty Yuan. I told me that was too much.

“Meh,” I said, and walked away.

He called me back and on his calculator, punched in “55.”

The five Yuan discount wasn’t doing it for me. He offered me the calculator. I had no idea what the market price of xuns was at the time, especially in a foreign currency. I punched in “30.”

He scoffed and punched in a median: “45.”

I didn’t really want the damn xun anymore. Haggling annoys me, and I typically don’t have much interest in shopping to begin with. I began to walk away.

“Okayokay,” the man called.

I got the xun for 30 Yuan. Somehow I still feel like I got hornswoggled.

I practiced my xun outside in the Drum Tower, to the delight of a Chinese baby. I wasn’t a very good musician, but the baby wasn’t a very good dancer either. Regardless, this reaffirmed a universal truth I have always known deep down inside: Asian babies are freaking adorable. They reign supreme on the baby spectrum, making Western babies look like tiny, deformed abominations.

After hearing a drum performance in the Drum Tower, I found an information center, complete with maps, staff, and Kevin and Amy from the train station! Once again, we talked for a bit, and then went our separate ways.

I set out to find Muslim Street. Earlier in the day I had noticed several people in white hats; I assumed these people were either part of Xian’s substantial Islamic population, or they were deli chefs. Maybe they were Halal chefs, which would cover all bases. The more of these people I saw, the closer I figured I was to Muslim Street.

The street was not difficult to find, as it stems from the city center and is full of things that would indicate it is Islamic in nature. Statues, food, trinkets, and shops of all sorts take up the space that isn’t inhabited by the shopping hordes cramming the street. Like many of my meals in China, that night I dined on street food- Halal meat pockets, specifically.

As expected, there was no beer on Muslim Street, so I got the next best thing: Day-Glo pink strawberry milk tea! As I effeminately sipped it through a straw, I noticed it came with little tapioca balls, reminders of what I was missing between my legs.

One item of interest to me was an Osama bin Laden coffee mug being sold at a booth with socialist propaganda mugs. I’m not sure what the message on it said, as it was in Chinese, but I have some things I like to imagine it said:

“A mug shot for your mug.”

“It’ll look great next to your Hitler tea set.”

“Osama bin Latte.”

“Osama bean Laden”

“This man’s pubes are as long as his beard.”

That last one would make my coffee taste funny though.

In hindsight I wish I had bought it, because it would be a collector’s item… since his face now has a lot more holes in it than it did four months ago.

On my way home, a Chinese man yelled over to me, asking if I spoke English. I answered in my mother tongue. He said his name was Jonathan (clearly it wasn’t) and he wanted to practice English with me while I walked home. This would make some people leery, but I have become accustomed to this practice in Korea. Sometime people like talking to complete strangers if it means they get a chance to indulge in the international Asian pastime: studying.

Jonathan and I chatted about Korea, China, and New York almost all the way back to the hostel, and then he had to go. He didn’t rape or rob me; he just wanted to be friends. If I had met him after I went to Shanghai, I probably never would have given him the chance.

So Jonathan, wherever you are, keep doing what you’re doing. And thanks for being a friend.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Another Seoul-full weekend has come and gone, peppered with sheesha-smoking, clubbing (at the scandalous “Club Naked”), heavy drinking, light eating, and expensive foreign food-buying.

But who cares about that?

Because these were all peripherals to the main reason for the trip. This was a trip to the most heavily militarized and ironically named area on planet Earth. This was a trip to one of the last remaining vestiges of the Cold War. This was a trip to the border of Kim Jong Il’s play land: The Demilitarized Zone.

My partner in freedom fighting, Daphne, made all the arrangements, because I can barely dress myself correctly. This unfortunate lack of ability led to what Daphne has since dubbed, “Shortsgate.”

Upon arriving at the USO office, Daphne and I checked in, and stood in the lobby. One of the kindly USO ladies approached me, asking, “Sir, did you bring any other pants with you?”

On this particular day, I had to say no.

“I did not bring any other pants with me,” I responded, fully aware that she thought I was dressed like a slut.

“Could you maybe pull your shorts down a little?” she asked.

“You mean like a gangsta?” I wondered, tugging them a bit.

She told me it was up to the military personnel whether or not I would be allowed to go on the tour, which made me even more nervous than the actual DMZ itself. I thought back to the email I received from the USO, which listed an array of prohibited garb. It included:

1. Shirts/Tops without sleeves or that expose the midriff and tank tops. Also shirts/tops with insulting, profane, provocative or demeaning representations.

2. No short pants /No skirt.

3. Any items of outer clothing of sheer variety.

4. Sports uniforms or athletic clothing of any kind including track pants or other stretch pants or warm-ups.

5. Shower and “flip-flops” shoes. No sandals.

6. Items of military clothing not worn as an integral part of a prescribed service uniforms.

7. Oversize clothing, commonly referred to as “gangster” clothes, including oversize baggy/long pants, t-shirts, or sweatshirts, and “biker” dress such as leather vests and leather riding chaps.

What I failed to realize was that “short pants” is actually a convoluted way of saying “shorts.” So I wore shorts. And I was the only one, aside from the twelve year-old girl who actually was wearing short pants, probably because the areas between her calves and ankles sweat a lot.

The bus ride made me nervous in part because we were approaching hostile territory, but mostly because of the warning I had received regarding my clothing choice. USO email-writers, a simple “Business casual dress attire is required,” would suffice for fellows like me who can’t follow too many rules at once.

As it turns out, nobody cared that I was wearing shorts except for the one woman who wanted me to take them off. A sly mistress, she was.

When we arrived to the Joint Security Area, we were briefed by an officer with either an accent or a strange speech impediment. He almost sounded drunk, but he knew too many facts and figures for this to be a possibility. Also, it was 9:00 am.

Our military guardians transported us to the JSA conference center, a blue room which is bisected into North and South Korea. The ever-stoic South Korean guards inside maintained Taekwondo “ready” poses; their large aviator sunglasses concealed all signs of emotion. They were, and continue to be symbols or stone-cold austerity.

So naturally, everybody wanted to take pictures with them. And we did.

Also, I can now cross “step foot into North Korean territory” off my to-do list.

Before departing the blue room, our military guide pointed out a North Korean footprint on one of the South Korean tables, a sign left either to show disrespect or a passion for table dancing.

I imagine the North Korean tours are more interesting.

We left the JSA conference center, and were only allowed to take photographs towards North Korea. The fear is that if we were to take photos facing South Korea, it would somehow empower the DPRK. This doesn’t make any logical sense, because the North Koreans can already see towards South Korea without the use of any technology beyond eyeballs. They will, however, also use binoculars. I know this, because I took a picture of a guard looking towards us with binoculars.

For much of the trip, photography was banned. The military personnel said this was because people can put their photos on Facebook, and Kim Jong Il can check his Newsfeed and gather information about activities within the DMZ.

Photos towards the DPRK were acceptable in certain areas. I managed to get a photo of the world’s tallest flagpole, which bore the weight of a giant North Korean flag as well as Kim Jong Il’s endless overcompensation.

Later in the day, we were shown what seemed like a mockery of a cold war propaganda film, but in actuality was just a regular propaganda film. The narrator’s speech pattern had all the patriotism of a testosterone-fueled Microsoft text-speaking program, and he actually began to make me want to live in the DMZ. He just made it sound so wonderful.

And it doubles as an animal sanctuary! Aside from the occasional fauna that has its hooves blown off by a landmine, endangered species (and regular species) have come to thrive there! The DMZ has become a home for many animals, including vampire deer (they exist), and as the patriotic narrator would say, “the living fossil: goats.”

The DMZ isn’t all frivolous animal fun though. Beneath it are at least four known tunnels heading from the DPRK to Seoul. The thriving animals had nothing to do with these passages; burrowing DMZ moles did not dig them. And one cannot assume that the DPRK was diversifying options for North Korean defectors looking for a less-starving lifestyle.

The USO admitted us to one of these tunnels, which is the perfect height for an army of malnourished North Koreans to come storming through. Unfortunately for me, it is certain to cause head trauma for any running person over 5’5”. North Korean ergonomics at work.

Overall, the experience is pretty mind-blowing (thankfully not mine-blowing). The tension beyond those barbed wire fences and anti-tank walls is palpable.

And apparently, the beer is palatable.

So I bought two bottles of DPRK beer, and a bottle of blueberry liquor. I’m waiting for the right moment to sample them, possibly after reunification of the peninsula. Or tonight.

I have heard arguments against purchasing North Korean beer, because it stimulates the economy, and the money goes directly into Kin Jong Il’s infallible platinum-lined pockets. This way he can commit further acts of bizarre corruption, like sponsoring North Korean scientists to create genetically mutated vampire deer in his likeness. The money won’t go towards the starving residents of the DPRK.

But by not buying the beer, I will remain sober, and the North Korean economy will remain stagnant. The starving residents of the DPRK will find themselves in the same exact situation as if nothing had happened, and Kim Jong Il would not have vampire deer genetically engineered in his image. The only variable is the vampire deer with Mr. Kim’s face. Should we really sacrifice that?

At the end of the weekend, Daphne and I still had not reunited the two Koreas. We had failed on every level. Next time we’ll be prepared though. And I won’t wear shorts.

And if you ever visit Seoul, don’t stay at the Hongdae Guesthouse. The owner is an irresponsible idiot.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Today, my students completed their speaking tests. One by one, they sat with me and answered from a list of questions I gave them three weeks ago. The responses I received were often memorable.

One student answered, “Rice,” after being asked to describe the perfect meal. Then, as an afterthought, “And kimchi.”

Of course.

At first I thought, “Maybe he doesn’t understand any of the words in the prompt, like ‘describe,’ ‘the,’ ‘perfect,’ and ‘meal.'”

Then I mused, “He could be homeless and perfectly happy. Bless him.”

Other students shared similar tastes, except for the ones preferred that food and drink pairing made in Heaven: spaghetti and orange juice.