Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nothing lost, nothing gained? Losing 300 USD in Tokyo.

Sometimes, in a move to be social and see a different side of a place, you agree to go out on the town, even when you are tired and want to wake up early the next morning. For me Monday, September 28, 2015 in Tokyo was one of those nights. I was on vacation. Why not get to know new people from the hostel and explore a different side of Tokyo?

I had spent the day exploring. I had eaten an awesome meal of ramen, suggested by the host of the hostel, and I was just hanging around in the common area planning my Tuesday. Not many people were around. It was 9 p.m.

I went upstairs, debating with myself what to do. I could go to sleep. I was tired after a long day of walking and exploring, but when I heard people talking in the room, I took a chance. I stepped out of my capsule bed and ask if anyone had plans for the evening.

That was when the evening turned from a potential quiet night to a night I will not soon forget. M the Italian girl in the room said, “Yes, another guy from the hostel and I are going out. Do you want to join us?”

I hesitated for a split second, then said, “Yeah, why not?”

I thought for sure we were going out in our area, so I only packed a bit of cash, about 4,000 yen (40 USD). When I went downstairs, I found out we were going to Shinjuku, a place full of yakitori and small bars. I asked if I would have enough for the evening. G the French guy who was coming with us assured me that it would be enough. “We won’t be out for that long. I want to be back before 2 a.m.”

We were an unlikely group of three. M a graphic designer who worked for an architecture firm, G a teacher trainer on sabbatical who had coordinated visiting artists to schools, and me, a EFL teacher, formerly an art educator. We came together at a great place, Kai(su) Hostel, attracted by the artistic layout of the hostel’s website and the charm of its interior design.

As we headed out to Shinjuku via two transfers on the metro, I considered what I would do if 4,000 was indeed not enough. I had my bank card. I knew I could always stop by a 7/11 ATM and withdraw more if needed.

We started the evening at a small yakitori bar and left around midnight. Already, I knew it was going to be a long night and my 4,000 yen had somehow already dwindled to 1,500 yen. It was not a good feeling. No one else was ready to head back, and I didn’t have money for a taxi. So, the conclusion was to stay out, tell M and G my money situation and figure out how to pay them back later. Feeling like an awful mooch, I let them know that I was pretty short on money.

“No problem!” was the response that I received.

After dinner we wandered over to Golden Gai, a series of alleys crowded with small 7-8 person bars. Between my method of using GPS and G’s method of asking every time he felt we were going the wrong direction, we made pretty good time. As we walked through the alleys of Golden Gai, we discussed the criteria for selecting a bar.

First, no cover charge. Many of the bars charged a cover for foreigners who may have just come to see what all the hype was about rather than to sit down, have a drink, and talk to the bar tender.

Second, there had to be people in the bar.

Third, it needed to look like fun.

As I predicted, I was out of cash after the first drink and a half. That was when things started to get uncomfortable. Sure, it’s not hard as a woman to get men to buy you drinks, but I like to pay for myself. I felt the guilt starting to rack up. We were all travelers on limited budgets staying at a hostel – so when we left Golden Gai in search of a place to dance – I kept my eyes open for an ATM. I didn’t care to dance, but no matter what we did, at this point, I felt I needed to grab some money.

That’s when I saw a 7/11 bank. This was my chance to get cash and pay everyone back for their generosity. I went into the bank, put in my Korean ATM card and started pressing buttons to withdraw money. I had remembered from before that 10,000 yen (100 USD) was the minimum I could withdraw at a time in Japan, but this time it seemed as if I could withdraw 50,000 Korean won (5,000 yen, 50 USD). I was excited, it would mean less money left over in yen at the end. I withdrew the money, put it in my purse without examining it, and left the bank.

After I took the money, we walked a bit more, looking for a club, and finding only places with hopping music and no dance floor. By this time it was 4 a.m. well past the 2 a.m. I was promised and well past my budget for this night out. Finally, to my relief, we headed, yawning, toward the metro. We were somehow under the impression that the metro opened at 4 a.m. When it wasn’t open, G, in his way, asked the poor student on the steps about the opening time, 6:30 a.m. We all agreed that it wasn’t worth the wait.

It was time to take a taxi.

Now was my time to pay back the favors, so I offered to cover our taxi ride of 2,400 yen (24 USD). When we arrived at the hostel, I handed over three bills to the taxi driver. G handed me a 1,000 yen bill for some reason. I received 600 yen in change from the driver, and I got out of the taxi and headed for bed.

The next day, I checked out of the hostel around 10 a.m. as planned and made my way to the Imperial Gardens and then on to a traditional looking area of Tokyo, known as Taito, where a hidden gallery called SCAI THE BATHHOUSE resided. The gallery didn’t open until noon, and I was a little early. So, I wandered around.

Not too far away was a great little hidden bakery and coffee shop nestled into traditional wooden houses. I went in and grabbed a couple low cost baked goods.

I thought I had about 3,600 yen in my pocket left over from the night before, 2,000 from the ATM withdrawal, 1,000 from G, and 600 in change from the taxi driver. I hadn’t bothered to check my wallet when I left the hostel. I just packed the extra 5,000 I had saved for transportation and was on my way. When I was at the metro, I put 1,500 yen on my card to get to the airport, so at the bakery I should have had 2,100 yen immediately accessible in my wallet.

I put down a bill for the baked goods, and waited as the cashier counted change. She took her time and grabbed a 5,000 yen bill and some 1,000 yen bills. I was about to wave her away and tell her she was wrong when I looked down at the bill I had handed her. In Japanese style it was still in the money tray on the counter. It was a 10,000 yen bill.

I stopped in shock. My first thought was, “Oh shit. G must have handed me a 10,000 yen note. What am I going to do? I don’t have his contact information. I don’t even know his last name.” I started thinking about how I could possibly pay this forward or return it to him.

After enjoying my snack, I went back to the gallery and then wandered on to the metro to head to the airport. I still had no idea what to do about the money, so I brushed the thoughts aside. I could figure it out later, when I had had more sleep and less alcohol the night before.

When I got close to the metro, I decided to stop by a convenience store to grab some water or something to drink. I went in and grabbed a marker and a drinkable yogurt. Then I went to the counter. At the counter, I opened my wallet and pulled out the change from the 10,000 yen bill. To my surprised I found another 10,000 yen bill. That’s when my neck flushed. I fumbled a bit, paid for my things with change from the first 10,000 yen bill and got out of there.

“What is going on? If I have two, it wasn’t G who made a mistake. I must have taken 50,000 yen (500 USD) from the ATM?”

As I thought of all of this and the foggy events of the nights before, I walked toward the metro, found my train, and got on. As I sat on the train, I badly wanted to open my wallet and do some calculations to figure out what was going on. If it was true, that I had taken 50,000 yen, maybe I misremembered the taxi ride. Maybe I gave him one bill and he gave me different change. The only other option is that he took 30,000 yen (300 USD) from me and gave me 600 yen in change. This couldn’t be right. There’s no way.

After a few stops, I got off the train to transfer and make sure I was on a train to the airport. I desperately wanted to find a place to hide and count my money.

There was nowhere to hide on the outdoor platform.

I would have to wait an hour until I was at the airport and in the bathroom. I had an hour to remember and make clear the events of the night before.

I remembered. I went to the ATM. I must have withdrawn 50,000 yen, there is no other explanation and it makes more sense that 50,000 Korean won. I was in Japan after all. I got in the taxi. At the end, I handed the taxi driver three bills. I distinctly remember this action. I also remember not looking at the bills, ever, until the bakery. I just assumed that 1 and 0 that I noticed were followed by two more zeros not three.

When I finally arrived at the airport, I was 90 percent certain of what had actually occurred, but I had a small sliver of hope that maybe I was remembering the night wrong. What kind of taxi driver, takes 30,000 yen for a 2,400 yen taxi ride?

I resolved to go into a stall and cry about my loss. 300 USD. The equivalent of a month of my teacher training course. Money that was supposed to go home. Money that I should have held on to, but not money that put me at a complete loss. Maybe the taxi driver needed that money … or maybe he was just a jerk who hated foreigners.

I went to the stall, still slightly clinging to hope. I opened my wallet with one last wish, and then I counted. One 10,000 yen bill. Two 5,000 yen bills. Three 1,000 yen bills. There was no longer any question. I had done exactly what I dreaded. I withdrew 50,000 yen and gave 30,000 yen to the taxi driver.

There was simply no other explanation. It will be absolutely confirmed when I see my sad bank account.

I traded 300 USD for a story.

Nothing lost nothing gained. 

There is no real excuse for the confusion ...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Driving in Paris and Other Memories: Paris Syndrome

As I read Tahir Shah’s Paris Syndrome, a flood of memories poured over me. Memories connected to false hopes and crushed dreams associated not with Paris or the city itself, but with a failed relationship, loosely connected to Paris, that has greatly affected my life and choices. When this relationship lay in the wreckage of confusion in Marseille, I hopped on a train to Nice, and then on to Paris for a brief moment to meet up with a friend who was also piecing together a shattered heart. We had a plan. We would meet in Paris. I had an international driver’s license, so we would drive north to Omaha Beach in Normandie, retracing the footsteps of her grandfather.

I met my friend near Gare du Nord, and we headed straight for the car rental area. Renting outside of America, I dreamed of a finally getting to drive a French car, a Citroen or Peugeot. You can imagine my disappointment when I found that the car in our spot was a tiny little Ford Fiesta. Regardless, we loaded up the car and drove out of the parking garage into the streets of Paris to begin our journey north.

Driving out of the city was deceptively easy. Parisian traffic seemed low key and more orderly than I had imagined, and I adeptly weaved my way onto the A14 heading north, briefly waylaid by a passing emergency vehicle. The drive back into Paris did not echo our drive out. Beautiful and ingenious as it may seem, Paris can be a nerve-racking mess for contemporary drivers without a GPS.

The plan seemed easy enough. On our return trip from Caen, I took the A14 and aimed for the peripherique, a road which circles the city and drops drivers near to their destinations. As an inexperienced Parisian driver, I missed the turn onto the peripherique and headed straight into the heart of Paris, a spinning round-a-bout full of traffic, an intersection of five roads, ten spokes.

 My head hurt.

Feeling pressure because we had to return the rental on time, I imagined the worst. Chances were that we would get lost, take the wrong spoke, and spin in the wrong direction, possibly toward another, perhaps even more convoluted round-a-bout.

It was here, entering this giant mess of five roads coming together into a centrifuge, shooting cars in every direction, that my friend, fighting motion sickness to read the map, must have said something like, “Take Avenue de Wagram.”


As I drove into the round-a-bout, trying to keep abreast of traffic, in this land with no divisions between lanes and a hundred cars merging into one place, it was all I could do not to lose it. “I don’t know which street that is!”

Parisian roads are labeled like those in most of the world outside of the Les √Čtats-Unis. That is, they are not on sign posts clearly discernible to a speeding vehicle, rather they are on the sides of buildings easily understandable to a pedestrian or, as in Haussmann’s time, a horse and carriage, but nearly impossible for a vehicle traveling nearly 40 miles per hour (65 km/h). It was not as if I could just slow down and approach each spoke timidly while inquiring about which road to take. That surely would have meant being crushed by the oncoming drivers inside our tiny Ford Fiesta.

Feeling as though a giant crevasse had opened between us inside the car, I yelled to my friend, “Forget street names! Just count! How many do I need to go? How many spokes?”

She counted frantically, figuring how many spokes we had already passed, egged on by the distress and urgency in my voice. Cars screamed past us as I tried to keep control and not veer too close to the center or edge of the centrifuge.

“Three more spokes!” she yelled across the void.




Suddenly, we were out of the first round-a-bout. We passed the first test, and the crevasse closed. We were back to sitting close, side-by-side, separated merely by the bucket seats and gear shift.

As each subsequent round-a-bout approached, we developed a strategy. A) Determine which road we had ended up on. B) Find the road on the map. C) Count how many spokes to the correct road. D) Check to make sure we ended on the correct spoke before hitting another round-a-bout. We proceeded with this strategy for what felt like an eternity. In reality, we probably drove through the heart of Paris for twenty minutes.

Then I saw it, a sign for Gare du Nord! “There it is!” 

I was elated. We had somehow survived Parisian traffic and countless round-a-bouts! We had made it!

Then I looked down at the gas gage.

Nearly empty.

Oh well. I did not care if we got charged me 9 Euro a liter for a tank of gas. I was not about to venture away from the portal that would take the car and us down into a garage and off the streets. I had had enough of Parisian traffic and of the crazed people who drive there. I still have not determined who regularly drives in Paris. I have not met a single Frenchman who has said, “Parisian traffic? No problem.” Instead they look at me like I must be crazy trying to drive through the streets of Paris.

Exhausted, we dropped the car and walked back to the apartment my friend was lodged in. It was 9pm. We had yet to hear from her hosts, who were out of town. I still did not know if it was ok for me to stay. At 10pm, my friend got a message. The girlfriend was not comfortable with a stranger staying in her apartment. I was kicked to the curb to look for a hotel near Gare du Nord.

For those who do not know Paris, this is not a comfortable neighborhood for a solo female traveler. Full of shady, back alley dealings, I was skeptical that I would find a hotel suitable for sleeping before my flight back to Marseille. Rather than tell my friend about my discomfort. I googled the nearest hotel, called to make sure they had a room, and headed out.

The hotel was “a stone’s through from Gare du Nord [and] doubled as a bordel”. I know that Tahir Shah’s book is fictional, but I imagine that in his travels Shah has experienced a place much as I did, a place I found in an exhausted state, at the last minute. After a long drive through the convoluted streets of Paris, I just needed a place to sleep.

On the exterior of the hotel, a sign with red letters in English but not in French said, “Guests may not have visitors.” Shaking off the red flags that were mounting, I entered. Next to the forbidding sign, there was a TripAdvisor sign. That should mean something, right? I took a breath and pushed the door in. A bell rang and the man sitting behind the counter hardly looked away from his television. I confirmed that I had just called, and he told me the total. I promptly handed him a card to pay. That was when he finally looked up at me.

“No cards,” he grunted.

I scrambled, taking out my wallet and counting and recounting my cash. The total for the room was something like 54 Euro. I only had 40 Euro, 44 with coins. I hesitated. I really did not want to venture back out on the street to find a cash machine or another hotel. I showed him that all I had was 44 Euro. He grunted and grumbled something about barely making ends meet. Then he took the money and gave me an old-style hotel key. Apparently at 10pm, I was an inflow of cash when there might have been none otherwise.

As I headed toward the narrow staircase that would take me up to my room, I took in my surroundings. Dark, due to nicotine covered light fixtures and no natural light from outside, the interior of the hotel was uninviting. I climbed the stairs as best I could, lugging a suitcase behind me. At the top of the stairs, I found the elevator door straight ahead and my room door directly to my right. I unlocked the door and walked into a tiled floor room, immediately turning around to lock and deadbolt the door. I heard the bathroom facet dripping, inhaled stale cigarette smoke, and heard the television through the thin walls. Luckily, my flight left early in the morning, and this would be a short night.

I was paranoid about bugs and the sounds coming from rooms all around me, but the hotel really was not bad. In a different circumstance, I might have thought it quaint. Even though I was exhausted, I did not sleep well on the uneven mattress, and in the morning, I skipped breakfast and got away from the hotel as quickly and early as possible. Badly needing sleep, I headed for the airport to fly back to Marseille and deal, once again, with wreckage and collect my things.

While I did not ever experience Paris Syndrome as extreme as Shah’s characters, I can see exactly why such an occurrence would happen. The city is touted as the most beautiful in the world, but the reality is both beautiful and gritty. It is a city of contrasts. A city with fabulous food, architecture, and history, and a city full of crazed drivers, prostitutes, and grime. A city I have spent as little time in as possible.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Medical Check: Initiation Rite of the English Teacher in Ulsan

When most people hear the words medical check, they might think of something like a sports physical in the States. A nurse takes your weight and height. A doctor listens to your lungs and heart through a stethoscope. Your blood pressure is checked. Maybe there is a urine or blood test, but the list seems reasonable and overall non-intrusive. In Korea, non-intrusive is not a word I would use to describe what happens during a medical check.

For what made my third medical check, I went alone. I had returned to my former place of employment in Ulsan, and I had confidence in my ability to go to the hospital.



Forgetting my previous experience in Ulsan, I had a preconceived notion that all Korean hospitals would be as foreigner friendly as the one in Gwangan, Busan. A place where the signs are in English, Russian, and Korean, and there is an information help desk on every floor. If someone doesn’t speak English? No problem. Call the on-site translator. Needless to say, I was in for a bit of a shock.
When I walked in the front doors at “Good Morning Hospital” (Yes, the sign was in English.), past the patients outside on their smoke breaks, I stopped and looked around. Where was the person who greets you when you walk in the door and tells you where to go and what to do if you have no idea? Where were the signs in English? The only English, foreign-friendly thing was the name of the hospital plastered on the outside of the building.

After so many times of feeling lost and overwhelmed, I have finally started to be able to process it. I no longer get worked up to a point of tears … when I am well-rested and well, anyway. Granted, I was neither sick, nor tired, nor rushed.

I took a deep breath.

Without a help desk, my option was to go to the hospital registration desk. I knew based on previous experience with hospitals and banks and anywhere with a line that I should take a number, if I wanted to get to the counter. I walked promptly to the machine that spits out numbers, took a number, and sat down to watch the digital numbers click up to mine. Only, for some reason, no one else decided to take a number, and while mine was only supposed to be two people away, I had to wait for the onslaught of people who had not taken a number to walk up to the desk and to get help. I was stunned. This was a-typical Korea from what I knew in Busan where people line up single-file on the busiest subway platform to get on a semi-crowded subway car. I almost decided that I was going to have to be pushy about things, but then my number came up. When I went up to the counter, I said in clear, concise English, “I need a medical check.” The woman looked at me with a blank stare and said some things in Korean.

It was in this hospital full of Koreans who did not speak English that I recognized something essential for life here in Ulsan.

I need to learn more Korean.

While I have day to day Korean which will help me with practical matters of finding what I need in a supermarket or ordering food or paying for things, I know zero Korean for hospitals. Somehow I fumbled enough that the supervisor of the woman I was trying to talk to came over, and said, “What is wrong? Where are you sick?”

“Nowhere. I am not sick. I need a medical check.”

“Huh? Uh.You need third floor.”

When I got to the third floor, I asked a nurse to point me toward the area for medical checks. I knew I was in the right place when I saw sample forms under the glass on tables, but the fillable forms were nowhere to be found. Just like the entry to the hospital, everything was different. In Busan my coworker showed me to a stack of forms, I filled one out, and then she handed it to the nurse. What did I expect? Different city, different hospital, different procedures.

I finally sorted out that I should go to the desk and ask for a form.

After filling out the form and handing it over, I was officially in the system and getting a medical check. The women said, “Pay, first floor (where I had just come from). Blood and urine, second floor. Then come back.”

Admittedly a bit baffled by the inefficiency of this payment system, again, compared to my hospital in Busan. I went down to the first floor, and learning from my previous experience, I did not take a number. I walked up to an open counter space and handed over my boss’ credit card to pay for the medical check.

Then I headed up to the second floor for “blood and urine”. When I came out of the stairwell, there were no immediate clues as to where to go, and no one around to ask. Once again I felt lost and helpless. The only room labeled in English was physical therapy. Obviously, I did not need to go there, but I thought, if I looked lost and helpless enough, someone would help.

Boy was I wrong.

I saw a single nurse in the two minutes I spend wandering around. When I took a step toward her to try and figure out where I needed to go, she glanced at me for a second before realizing that I was going to attempt to speak English at her. Rather than stop and deal with what might be slightly awkward, she put her head down and scurried off.

This made me laugh inside. I completely understand. If you are scared to do something, i.e. speak a language, you do your best to ignore it. My students attempt this all the time, and it is possible that I might do the same thing in her position. 

Then, I saw it. A man holding the crook of his elbow, a tell-tale sign that he had got blood drawn. I walked in the direction he came from.

When I stepped into the “blood and urine” room and handed my paperwork to the first nurse, she immediately asked me in Korean if I speak Korean. I told her a bit. She acknowledged what I said, grabbed a Dixie cup, wrote my information on it, drew a line, and said, “Urine. Here,” while pointing at the line. No lid. No rules. No nothing. Then she directed me to the restroom around the corner. I grabbed the cup and all my things, and while hoping that I had enough urine to fill the cup to the line, I also wondered how they possibly think this is an accurate test. Anyone could do anything to their urine in that multi-stalled restroom.

After successfully (and barely) reaching the urine line, I returned with my cup and stuck it in the appropriate tray, a stainless steel hospital tray, without anything to stop the cups from sliding around. I would hate to be the person that carried that tray full of random people’s urine cups.

Knowing what was coming next, I took off my jacket and sat down so the nurse could take my blood. The nurse kind of directed me through the typical process, mostly in Korean and gestures, band on arm, hand in fist, me looking away from the place where a needle entered my tender inner elbow vein. The only English word she used through the gestures and slow, completely incomprehensible (to me) Korean was the word “blood”, a word I know in Korean. After she finished drawing my blood, she gave me a cotton swab, gestured to me to hold it on the puncture wound for “five minutes”. I did as I was told, put pressure on my puncture wound, and went to go sit in the hall. 

Even though I was less than two meters from her, I was out of sight. Almost immediately after I left the room, she started laughing about the situation.  She said something something in Korean, “Urine. Blood,” and then laughed at the scenario. Yes, this is a story to tell people. I thought it was amusing that she got such a kick out of how ridiculous the whole situation had become. 

Finally, after my five minutes were up, I headed back up to third floor.

I was adopted immediately by a nurse who did not speak much English but was incredibly caring and considerate. Each step of the way she guided me, sticking to my side, and making sure I felt safe and secure despite my lack of Korean. First she showed me to the changing room, directing me to remove everything on top through gestures. When I came out of the changing room, she waved me over to the eye exam where I got to show off my knowledge of the words “left” and “right” in Korean. Then it was on to the color-blindness test that I am always nervous I will screw up – colors blend! After that, it was a short scoot over to the blood pressure machine, which is always tricky because of the stress of not knowing what’s going on language wise. I cannot ever tell if my blood pressure is higher than normal because I have been ingesting too much salt or because of the slight stress of the situation. Next, on to measuring my bust line – this is confirmed by all foreign women, but none of us understand what it is all about. Height and weight followed that brief awkwardness. We then went into a private room where I did a listening exam. Hand gestures and noises communicated that when I hear a beep, I should click the button. When I felt I had failed the listening exam, we went to a different, closet-like room for an EKG scan. She had me lay down on the gurney and attached strange little suction cups around my heart. For some reason the nurse could not get a good reading, and she nervously took forever and kept apologizing. Finally, it was time for this caring nurse to pass me on to another woman for the chest/lung x-ray. The entire time, my nurse had not spoken three words of English to me. When she tried to pass me off, her proximity to me (she made sure her whole arm touched mine) and my lack of Korean, did not allow me to understand that she was in fact moving on to the next patient. Finally, she gently pushed me toward the other nurse and said quietly, “Say your name.” Then she was gone.

The next nurse was a lot more laid back and less concerned that I understood what was happening. She quickly took my chest x-ray to confirm that I was tuberculosis free. Then she set me free. I was not sure what to do next. Was I done? I checked in at the main desk to confirm. My little nurse was nowhere to be found. I really wanted to thank her for being amazing.

After confirming that I was finished, I went back to the dressing room. The door was closed, so I waited, assuming that it was busy. An older woman walked by me and walked straight into the changing room. Her daughter said, “Come on! Together!” But her mom said, “No, no, no,” in Korean. Needless to say, I waited, telling the daughter about my confusion with the dressing room while we waited for her mom to change.

When I changed, I realized the whole ordeal was done. In less than an hour, I had been put through a series of challenges and came out in the end, no tears of frustration had been shed. I was finished. It was time to treat myself to lunch and go to work. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking at Art: The Busan Ferry Terminal at Night

The Busan Port at night is a magical place. No one is around and the boats all sit quiet aside from the occasional pilot coming back in from assisting a larger ship out of the port. Near the water, benches are set up, specifically, it seems, to encourage people to watch the port activity. The lights in the distance shine like unflickering fireflies, and the houses disappear into darkness. Cars zoom past at all hours and a stray pedestrian saunters by.

I had the occasion to see the port late night on a weekday when I first met Philipp. We wandered here after climbing the hill behind China Town / Texas Street and seeing the port from above. Conversation kept us occupied as we walked and explored. We talked about everything from family to traveling to future dreams. We first connected on our mutual love of Russia, and the topic and storytelling never got old.

Philipp knew about my knowledge of and love for art. He also knew I had taught others how to look at art, so he gave me a challenge. “If this were a work of art, what would you say about it?” “This” referred to the port as it stood in front of us. Excited about the challenge, my eyes lit up, but to be honest, at first I balked a bit at the port being considered artwork. I said, “Ok, let’s imagine this is a photograph. And for whatever reason, what we are looking at now, this, was the perspective chosen by the artist.” I followed this brief and somewhat uninspired statement with a standard starting question for looking at any work of art.

“What do you see?”

Before the words came out of his mouth, without even looking at him, I predicted what he would say. He had told me that he always sees things as they are.

“Um, ok … what do I see? I see boats and buildings and water.”

I started trying to ask him for details or what kind of story he would tell, but even though he was open, his resistance to interpretation was strong. I knew I needed to give him a starting point, so I changed my tune and broke every rule that I have learned for showing children art. You do not usually tell children what you see because of the assumption that the child will think there is a “right” answer. I knew Philipp had more mental capacity than a child, so I forged ahead and broke rules.

“Ok. Let me tell you what I see. You said you see buildings. Maybe it’s my poor eyesight, but I actually don’t see many buildings, the whole land mass out in the distance is hard to bring into focus. Instead, I see lights scattered around, a bit like fireflies, and I see the reflections on the water. Of course I know there are ships and machinery, but if I really look, that’s not what I see.”

He stood there for a moment, taking it in. “Weird. When you were describing all of that, I saw it. Why has no one ever done that for me?”

At this moment, I realized that Philipp was the kind of person that I admire and want to be around. Even if he does not know something or is not aware of it, he is open to the possibility of its existence. He is open to trying new things, even if it means challenging his world view. That night we decided we had to go to the art museum together.

Finally, the day before Philipp left for Fukuoka, we went to the art museum. I usually prefer to go alone for a variety of reasons, but with Philipp the art museum felt like a different place. He had somehow joined my inner dialogue and brought it out. We joked and laughed and discussed what we saw. He helped me see things that I had not seen on my previous visit to the Busan Bienniale. My personal favorite was his interpretation of a work he nicknamed “CCTV”. The first time I had seen this work of art, I did not know what to make of it. I looked at the grid, the yellow arrows, the brown squiggly lines, the gray circles, and then made a connection between the marks in the grid and the “key” to the artwork below. I made a connection, but I could not jump to a story or an interpretation. The work of art did not stick with me. This second time around was different.

Philipp looked at it for a minute, and then said, “Ok. Should I go first or you?” I told him to go ahead.

“So, this artwork is about monitoring, about America monitoring terrorism. These are cameras, and that is the headquarters. Each time a beard [brown, horizontal zigzag line] is found, a record is made, and that person is watched.”

He went on describing his interpretation of what the grid and organizational chart meant. He had a description and connection for each element of the artwork, and I was impressed. He noticed parts of the artwork I had missed and his story made this artwork come alive. With his description, the art became a dynamic, memorable work of art with a story and direction. I appreciated his ability to help me see something I had not seen before.

--written in November 2014 about October 8, 2014.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Red Coat is the Coat on Fire

I know, most of you think of Katniss Everdeen as the Girl on Fire. But on Friday the 13th, my four year old, shapely red wool peacoat, complemented by me and a chintzy bit of Korean, was the Coat on Fire.

It always stuns me when I have had an article of clothing, be in shoes or a coat or a sweater, for a prolonged period of time, and then I have a day of compliments directed toward that old article. On the day before Valentine’s Day, this flurry of compliments might have had something to do with the color of my coat.

The evening of Friday the 13th started with a coworker, who honestly must have seen this coat 20 or 30 times by now, saying, “Oh. That’s a really nice coat,” like it was the first time he had ever seen it. I shook my head at this lack of observation skills, and said, “Thanks. It's 100% Korea.”

After work, I headed out to barbecue with one of my coworker turned friends, and proceeded to impress the new waiter at my regular barbecue place with my functional but limited Korean. I tend to have just enough of this language to get myself into a position where the other person assumes my Korean is a lot more extensive than it actually is.

At the end of the meal, when we went to the cash register to pay, and I communicated that we wanted to split the bill, the cashier looked at me and said, “Something something pretty something something.” I just looked at him with a question mark on my face. Previously at this barbecue place I have been told I am beautiful by the wait staff (maybe one of the reasons I keep going back), but this guy had never been involved. The question mark may have turned into a, “Really? That’s nice, but come on,” look.

He recovered quickly, and said the same phrase but gestured to my coat. Ah! Ok. Second compliment on a four-year-old coat in one day. This old girl (the coat) must be building some confidence and putting some swing in her skirt. Of course I said thank you in Korean as politely as I could muster under pressure, which mostly just includes the regular thank you and a slight bow.

On my way home, I decided to stop by the new 7-11 and grab a drink. It was still early, and it was my last Friday at work anyway. Why not celebrate? When I went to the cash register, the old man behind the counter went to grab a bag. I had a bag with me, so I told him in Korean, “It’s ok.” He looked at me a bit surprised, repeated the phrase I had said and kind of chuckled. Then told me how much my drinks were.

When he saw that I did not have to look at the numbers on the screen and was repeating the numbers in Korean to get correct change, he got a little flustered. He asked me in rapid fire Korean where I was from. This is a question I usually understand, so I knew the speed was a bit too fast because I did not understand. I told him, “I don’t know,” in Korean because I haven’t bothered to learn, “I don’t understand.” He said some of the few words he knew in English to communicate he wanted to know where I was from. This use of English probably increased his adrenaline. I did not have exact change. So I gave him 7,000 won for something that cost 6,800, and I told him in Korean that I was from America. He said something in an approving tone and went to grab my change. I could see his hands were visibly shaking, and then he tried to give me all my money back plus the change I was due. I shook my head, and that confused him. He then tried to give me a different amount. I finally told him as best I could, "I gave you 7,000 won" … really just "7,000 won" is all I know how to say in Korean. He understood. His wife, who had been standing by making sure her new employee did not mess up the till, shook her head at him and smiled at me. Then we all kind of laughed, and I walked out the door.

I could not help but wonder if it was more than just my fragmented Korean that threw him off. I wondered if my coat had been possessed somehow.

On my walk home, I laughed a bit more and was thankful that I had decided to go home rather than out on a night when I was wearing the Coat on Fire.

The Coat on Fire as it was in 2011.
The Coat on Fire as it is today.