Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Tell Me What You Think of My Hair
This contrasts heavily with women, who will announce their intentions to get a haircut well in advance. They will gaze analytically into mirrors for periods of several minutes before declaring to their significant other, “I think I may need to cut my haircut.” The internal commentary of the man they are speaking too will usually come to life at this point, and he’ll think, Either it is or it isn’t. Let me know when you’ve made a choice.
He will, if he’s intelligent, not say this out loud. If he’s sagacious enough, he knows that being asked what he is thinking on a regular basis and always being vague in response is a better plan than simply saying what he is thinking. Otherwise, he’d die single and Post™ Raisin Bran would be the most elaborate meal ever prepared in his home.
He knows that she may choose to have her haircut the next day. Then again, maybe it’ll be the next week; who knows when the woman will have the financial resources and the spare afternoon she requires for such an undertaking. She’s simply stating out loud that this is going to happen sometime, thus providing adequate preparation time to notice when she has a new style, plus adequate rationale for outrage when he fails to do so.
This is the only explanation that makes sense to guys. We tend not to deliberate on such things for more than a day or two. One day, we simply wake up, see ourselves in a mirror and wonder what hedgehogs have given their lives to be our skullcaps. It’s then that we decide to visit the barber.
Note that I distinctly said “barber” in the last paragraph, as opposed to “beautician” or “stylist.” We would prefer to have the deed done by another man, one who is cognizant of how little we want to be sharing our hygiene habits with anyone else, and who will absolutely, positively never ask us what we are thinking.
In many ways I am distinctly male: I cannot cook, I try to explain my opinion in as few words as possible and I consider Leonardo DiCaprio’s movies worse than facing a firing squad. However, my attitude toward hair styles has not been shared by many of my gender.
I have often viewed haircuts as a way of emulating those I admired. In the period leading up to my teen years, the one I admired was MacGuyver.
Emulating Richard Dean Anderson’s appearance did not make me a celebrity, nor did it enable me to create make-shift explosives out of devices you might find in a convenience store. It simply gave me long hair in the back of my head, and by the time I reached eighth grade only a minority of my classmates shared this look.
Furthermore, I had a feeling that this minority would spend a lot of their future years in convenience stores, not searching for the parts of potential makeshift explosives, but probably looking for employment and/or methamphetamine ingredients.
Therefore, I found new role models in the alternative rock scene of the mid-90s. Anyone who was a teen at this time remembers the style: long enough to deny its wearer serious consideration for good jobs, but not long enough to get caught in automatic sliding doors. My older sisters both married men far more embracing of certain male stereotypes than I, and, being in their 20s, couldn’t understand why any male would want hair down past his earlobes.
Frankly, I’m now the same age they were at that time, and I no longer understand it either. However, I still clearly remember the tension resulting between them and myself when I used the four forbidden words: “Do you have hairspray?” My brothers-in-law regarded this in a way similar to how Republicans react whenever a high-profile Democrat suggests leaving Iraq.
“He hates our way of life,” they would say. “He’s emboldening the enemy.”
Near the end of my college years, I, and nearly every other male my age found a style that was distinctly male yet stylish enough: using gel or wax to flip the front of the hair up while keeping the rest down. The effort required was minimal and result so effective that I haven’t changed styles in more than five years.
Here in Korea, where the people are smaller and nearly everyone seeks an office job, masculinity is interpreted differently. There are many men who cut hair professionally, but not one accurately fits the definition of “barber.” No, these have all the characteristics of male hairstylists: they all have a color scheme atop their heads that resembles one of the new flavors at Baskin Robbins, their physiques are as wide as matchsticks at the shoulders and somehow get narrower in the legs, and their clothes fit like Saran wrap covering a pretzel stick.
When I instruct them to give me a trim, there is a sense that they are overqualified for such a task, but they set out to do it in earnest, possibly because they work with blonde hair so infrequently. It all goes well until the end, when they decide that my ‘do is five years out of date, and attempt to give me a look no man who isn’t a hairstylist can wear to work the next day.
They rarely speak English, but when they finish and give me a chance to look in the mirror, I imagine them wanting to ask me, “Well, what are you thinking?”
What I am thinking, as I sit silently, is "How do I say 'justifiable homicide' in Korean?"
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Korean Bluntness Will Never Bore Me
A young woman with the English nickname of Catherine stood in front of me, her head only a bit above mine, even though I was sitting and she standing. The teachers and students from the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Chuncheon, South Korea were on our way via bus to a weekend summer retreat.
I was sitting by myself, deep in thought. By “deep in thought,” I mean, I was in a staring contest with a tablet of notebook paper, hoping that I would win and the words for my next column about life in this country would suddenly appear without my having to think of anything.
Someone less familiar with Korea’s ESL students and their struggles with adjectives might have been emotionally wounded by Catherine’s words. However, anyone who has taught in Korea even a couple of months has heard the students say something like, “I don’t like that movie, it makes me very boring” at least once. Furthermore, she was a pleasant distraction from the writer’s blockade I was attempting to break through for one more week.
Catherine had come to see what I was doing and ask if I wanted to join the students playing some games that youth here enjoy while we waited for our bus to arrive at its destination. It was very thoughtful of her, and her knowledge of English was extensive, though her application of it was imperfect. It wasn’t long before I decided that I would make her my girlfriend. Eight months later, her speaking has steadily improved, and I have learned a thing or two about how the Korean mindset affects the words that come out their mouths.
Describing a Korean student who has recently started speaking English as “shy” would be akin to calling Dick Cheney “kind of stern.” When foreigners walk on the streets, the children, and sometimes even the young adults can be seen whispering to one another, hoping that they can put all the courage they have amongst themselves together, so one of them will actually be able to say something. Finally, the least diffident among them will say “Hello,” the foreigner will say “Hi” in response, and their whole group will cackle riotously.
A Caucasoid such as I is especially intimidating in cities where foreigners visit rarely, such as the eastern port town of Gangneun. The hardened Korean men who own the shops there in front of the Sea of Japan have graying hair and red, wrinkled skin from a life of sea and sun, yet their hands tremble and their voices are muted when a tall America enters and attempts to buy a beverage from them.
This initial caginess stands in stark contrast to the statements they will make once they’re comfortable with the language, some of which seem so candid as to induce cringing.
If an American is among friends and he/she appears to have been beaten mercilessly with the acne stick overnight, he/she can count on friends not to bring it up during conversation. Likewise, if there’s one in your circle of acquaintances who has fallen behind on their exercise program and their wardrobe is working a bit harder to keep all of their abdomen out of the public eye, none of them talks about it in public. We all know it’s there, and mentioning it won’t make it go away.
However, I’ve found that once Koreans learn to speak English, they will discuss each other’s physical imperfections as if they were yesterday’s weather.
Since I came to Seoul to begin work in our textbook development office, I and a few other foreigners have been under the supervision of a Korean woman named “Christie.” Christie spent some time in the UK, and so she regularly supplies us with distinctly Korean thoughts in a British accent, especially when we go out to lunch together.
“She’s very cute,” she will say about another employee within earshot. “She just has a lot of pimples.”
Discussion will then turn to our hobbies outside of the office. Lately, mine have included a gym nearby where I exercise with a burly South African teacher named Henry, whom Christy is familiar with.
“Henry’s very muscular,” Christie will say to me. “Robert, you are not. You are very slender.”
A statement such as this is enough to send my Anglicized standards of gracious discourse reeling, and she hasn’t even delivered the knockout: “Except for your stomach.”
Catherine has explained to me that this is not so much a degrading comment, just an observation that I was thin, but not excessively so. Poverty and malnourishment were widespread following the Korean War, and so now they are very sensitive to weight loss. They frequently say to each other and to foreigners, “You are losing your weight,” and not with a tone of admiration in their voices.
“Christie speaks English, but she’s still Korean,” Catherine said.
Even so, from now on I’m making it point to sit up straight and inhale whenever we eat together.
If I ever learn their language, which statements of mine will they consider outlandish? I’m somewhat eager to find out. One thing I do know now is that learning the intricacies of a new culture is never boring, even if I am sometimes.
Monday, April 16, 2007
This is it...
Sunday, April 15, 2007
I Take a Dive for No Man (or His Wife)
In the approximately 18 years that I have played tennis, my watershed moments include the first tournament I won, the last match I played for my high school team, and the time I overcame a leg cramp to win a match. There was also my first on-court injury, which took place when I was 10 years old, and a certain parent of the opposite gender (whose name I will protect from the general public) hit me in the face with a Wilson™, leaving me with fuzz in my right eye for three days.
But this last week was probably the first time I’ve ever prevailed in a doubles match despite having a partner that didn’t want to win.
Near my place of employment at the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Seoul are a pair of courts, where the staff of our institute and the Adventist hospital, a sister institution, go to play on most nights and mornings. I’m free on Wednesday nights, so I went out by myself and waited to see who would arrive.
I was first joined by a man of limited English who identified himself as an employee of the hospital. Though about 20 years older than me and eight inches shorter, he practiced with me for about 30 minutes, even taking a turn attempting to return my hardest serves, which he mostly did with success.
Soon, we were joined by a middle-aged woman. I practiced against them both for a time, until we were joined by another man, who happened to be Pastor Kim, director of the SDA Language Institute system, and husband of the very same middle-aged woman.
He offered to play a match with us, the teams being myself and the hospital employee versus my boss and his wife. This was hardly the most intimidating team I’d ever faced, as both are in their 40s, armed with serves similar in speed to that of an elderly Floridian driving in a supermarket parking lot.
However, a strange effect had come over my partner. Whereas he’d been able to return nearly all of my shots with no trouble in practice, during match play he suddenly couldn’t put a ball onto the court. He would stroll to the ball as though walking to salad bar, and then calmly and with great purpose, drive the ball into the net over and over again.
We were behind 4-1 before it finally started to dawn on me: I think he’s afraid to beat Pastor Kim. His influence may extend into the hospital…
Over the next couple days I sought to confirm my opinion among those in the know. “Yes,” my girlfriend told me the next day, “sometimes people in Korea like to make their bosses feel good and so they let them win.”
“Pastor Kim likes to win,” one of my colleagues in the textbook development office said. “Many times the other players let him.”
This phenomenon is hardly limited to Korea. In September there was an article in the New York Times which described the way former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played squash while in office. He would invite his government underlings to play in the Pentagon basement, where he would not, as is the customary squash etiquette, get out of the way after his opponent’s shot, and thus block their path to the ball.
His lackeys would be under rights to call a do-over on that point, but apparently they didn’t. After all, Rumsfeld considered the sport to be his way of relieving himself of all the stress that comes with leading the world’s greatest military power into an unending military debacle, and any employee who questioned him on the squash court is likely to have lost his chance to ride on Air Force One.
What I’ve wondered since reading this piece is why anyone who had proved themselves able enough to get a job at the Pentagon would be willing to regularly take a dive just so that America’s worst post-Vietnam Secretary of Defense could feel better about himself.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it takes to make a tennis partner intent on losing to change his ways: you should be eight inches taller than that person and 20 years younger. After missing his umpteenth easy shot, I finally showed him a facial expression which suggested that, whatever the consequences of winning this match, he should try to do so lest a very large and unhappy foreigner follow him home afterward.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and there was sudden upswing in his performance. We eventually won, and all shook hands at the net afterward.
“Very good match,” Pastor Kim said to me.
“Come again next week,” his wife said to me.
“I’m sorry,” my partner said to me.
I told him it was okay. I just have to wonder what job is worth having if you have to lower yourself in order to make powerful people feel good. After all, if they have to beat their underlings in order to make themselves feel better about their jobs, they should pick jobs they’re better at.
Monday, April 09, 2007
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Roommates are Good Practice
In those days, a “room” was a quiet place where I could read biographies of American heroes, like Babe Ruth and John F. Kennedy, which carefully omitted some of their hobbies which Mrs. Ruth and Mrs. Kennedy Onassis probably considered less-than-heroic. At that time, “mate” was something the narrators of the PBS animal programs would often talk about their subjects doing, even if it was something that never seemed to ever occur on camera.
However, over time, experience taught me that people would infrequently come into my life, share my possessions and then never be heard from again. These people are called “repairmen,” and they’re machinations have been too well-orchestrated over the last few centuries for you or I stop now.
Also, since college, I have spent time with many kinds of roommates, and they each had their own unique merits and foibles. Most of my roommates were encountered either here in Korea while working for the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute, or during my studies at Southern Adventist University in Chattanooga. Even though both of these were Adventist institutions, there were times my roommates and I clearly differed in terms of lifestyle choices.
There were those whose rate of speech and depth of conversation topics suggested that the air near the local Chrysler factory was not the most harmful thing they’d ever inhaled. There have also been those who told me they enjoyed “watching movies” with an ever-growing assortment of female “friends,” which they tended to do in their “bedrooms” while the door was “shut” and lights were “off.”
Those roommates with whom I have no moral qualm I tend to group in the category of “mostly fine, but with certain irritating tendencies.” These irritations may range from the type who always forgets to turn off the light in the bathroom to the person who repeatedly and actively seeks to do irritating things under the impression that it is somehow helpful. For me, there was no greater example of this than the roommate who, at the end of every day of work or class, would ask me in his especially chipper tone, “How was your day?”
I rarely answered. However, I would often think, Not so great. Apparently I’ve come home to a wife I didn’t know I had, and I must say I’m disappointed by her appearance.
There was also the roommate who left the door locked even when he was home, even though we lived in the suburban area of rural Chattanooga, where there is little activity of the criminal variety (or any other variety, for that matter). As I arrived home at night from graduate school classes and work, I would often have to sort through my keys in the dark while carrying my books and papers. When I asked him to leave the door unlocked sometimes, he, a fairly sturdy looking young man who worked in construction, would say, “But I don’t know who’s going to come in here while I’m home.”
Man, I would think to myself, you’re a man!
Since coming to Korea to teach, I have been housed with other foreign teachers. My current roommate is a Korean-American able to converse in both languages, so he certainly is quite useful to have around whenever there’s a problem at the apartment that requires a machinating repairman to come in and trifle with something we need to keep our food cooked.
However, there is one little problem: he sings. There’s nothing especially wrong with his singing voice; but I’ve met a few people who enjoyed singing out loud without any accompanying music, and virtually all of them have little or no idea how much those around them are not enjoying it. They generally all start out singing the chorus of a well-known song and give up the words at about mid-sentence, simply continuing the melody and alternately between lyrics and sung non-words until the next verse would start. They then pause a few minutes, before beginning the cycle anew.
So, if the song in their head were, for example, “Hotel California,” what they would actually sing would sound something like this: “Welcome to the Hotel Na-na-ya-nah! Huh huh lovely place … (pause of indefinite length) Such a love-nuh huh…
Like with my previous roommates, I sit and think of clever sentences that could succinctly repudiate such irksome behavior. However, I will never say it out loud, because this would open me up to whatever criticisms of me has thus far kept silent about. Therefore all dictionaries should, under the word “roommate,” have the following definition: “Person whose qualities you must endure for a time, and who must endure yours until one of you moves up in life.”
Roommates teach all of us, especially singles like myself, how to live with other humans like ourselves until the day we find can one of the opposite gender. With any luck, I will never be in a place where I am without a roommate for an extended length of time.
I need somebody else to deal with repairmen.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
I'm a Finalist
(It should be plain to see that the tennis bureaucracy has become so muddled than no "commissioner," at least as other sports might envision him or her, can fix it. It would take someone with the ambition of Napoleon, the ruthlessness of Pinochet and the ends-justify-the-means philosophy of Park Chung-hee to fix it. Were I granted such a position of absolute power, this is what I would do :)
"I, the newly and divinely endowed Supreme Commissioner-for-Life of Tennis do declare the following:
"Verily, the tennis season shall be streamlined to prevent the further watering down of its sacred product!
"Verily, a three-month off-season shalt commence, rather than the shameful six-week mockery that doth afflict its players now!
"Verily, the Australian Open shall begin sometime in March! Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open shall abide in their current schedules, leaving each major tournament one month to six weeks apart, establishing momentum from event to event!
"Verily, the Mercedes-Benz Master's Series events shalt be trimmed from nine events to five, all of which shalt be co-ed! Each of the four major tournaments shalt be preceded by one Master's Series event on the same surface and on the same continent! Moreover, the year-end Master's Cup shalt be preceded by an indoor Master's Series event in Asia!
"Verily, the end of the year Master's Cup shalt also be co-ed, taking place at the end of October in Asia and on an indoor court!
"Verily, the month of November shalt be reserved for Davis Cup events, though the commissioner shalt delegate the planning particulars to someone in the ITF!
"Verily, the months of December-February shalt be designated for Davis Cup qualification rounds, Challenger Series events and exhibitions!
"Verily, this schedule shalt cut down on injuries and tournament no-shows, and shalt give each event greater gravitas! Who doth deem three European clay court and four American hard court Master's Series events necessary, anyway?
"Verily, promoters and tournament heads shalt surely complain of lost opportunities and lost revenue, but the new and superior product shalt more than make up for such grievances in the future!
"Verily, Nikolay Davydenko, he of 65 match wins in more than 30 events in 2006 hath complained about this schedule's affect on his livelihood! For his insolence, Davydenko shalt henceforth be banished from the main draw of the next grand slam event! However, if he should beg mercy, prostrate himself before the commissioner and kiss his ring bearing the likeness of the Pete Sampras leaping overhead, he might well be granted a wildcard (AM I NOT MERCIFUL?)!
"Verily, the commissioner of tennis hath spoken, and it shall be done! Quiet, please!
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