Saturday, June 28, 2008


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The Men's Health Guy Vs. the Average Guy

From a young age, guys are instilled with several categories’ worth of goals. Within each category is a wholly attainable objective, along with a less realistic one that gives us something to pursue.

For example, nearly all of us think that a certain amount of respect and admiration from our peers would be nice. On the other hand, to have so much respect and admiration from our peers that we end up getting elected to Congress, where our only jobs would be to a) serve in committees and b) make sure that the local Pop-Tart museum gets plenty of federal funding would be great.

Almost all guys think that being successful at work in our family lives would also be nice. However, being so successful at work that we could afford having someone else buy clothes for us would be great, especially since it would benefit our family lives to not be dragged by our wives to ornate-looking torture rooms with names like Belk and Macy’s.

Lastly, we all want to obtain a certain degree of health and fitness throughout our lives. It would be nice to stay relatively illness- and injury-free, so as to avoid making colleagues cover for us and keep from racking up numerous medical bills. But, then again, being on the cover of Men’s Health would be great.

The ultimate goal in this category may differ somewhat from guy to guy; the most patient among us wants to be on the cover of Runner’s World, while the most insecure wants to be on the cover of Flex. For most of us, however, Men’s Health strikes a happy medium, with the guys on its cover having a respectable amount of muscle, but not so much that they can never wear blue jeans.

Some of us want to look like the Men’s Health guy more than others. For some less-driven men, this desire begins and ends with seeing a copy of the magazine on the rack at the supermarket, thinking, That’d be cool, then picking up the latest Car and Driver and going home to watch Spike.

Others among us, however, actually buy the magazine and look inside for advice. The actor/athlete/hip-hop star on any given month’s cover is usually profiled within, where he talks about how he has managed to find fulfillment and happiness in his career. Guys never read this; if we wanted to find the secret to happiness and fulfillment, we’d read Guideposts, not an interview with the star of I, Robot. We read Men’s Health because we want those less-driven men to know that we could, with minimal effort, military press them.

That’s why, somewhere adjacent to his unread profile, is a chart detailing the Men’s Health guy’s weight training plan. Generally speaking, he probably follows a four-five day a week program; he works his chest and triceps on Monday, back and biceps Tuesday, shoulders and legs Thursday, fingers, toes and eyebrows Friday, etc.

It probably says (in small print) underneath that he does 45-90 minutes of running/biking every day after weight training, but unlike him, us average guys have to be at work at 8 a.m., so we stick with the weights. Also, another adjacent sidebar says that the Men’s Health guy eats something like nine times a days, and almost always a salad, chicken breast, bunch of egg whites or a protein shake. He also never eats bread, pasta, sweets, or 2 percent milk. Since we average guys don’t have our own cooks, we prefer to set our benchmarks a little lower, such as eating the occasional banana and generally not drinking Pepsi while in the gym.

Though we can’t follow his plan to the letter, training usually goes well for awhile. Even with a much higher intake of trans fats than the Men’s Health guy, average guys can usually make significant progress, provided we don’t give up after the initial soreness turns every individual stair step into an object one would normally associate with places like Abu Ghraib prison.

Soon his arms begin to swell, he starts standing a lot straighter, and begins eying the slumping posture of less-driven men with contempt as they stand outside public buildings, working their way through a pack of cigarettes. He begins offering unsolicited advice about “warm-up sets,” “maxing out” and “breath control” to co-workers. His bench press starts climbing, and he begins dreaming of a three-digit number higher than 200 that he associates with an attention-getting exercise. Then, he begins contemplating things that were once seemingly divorced from the real world, like distance running and giving up soft drinks.

At this point, one of two things is almost guaranteed to happen to the average guy. One possibility is that he will be given a massive project at work that he will have to devote nearly all his energies to, because gym fees, and a lot of other things, depend on his paycheck. The other possibility is that he will wake up in the middle of the night with a pain shooting through his shoulder caused by the tiny, oft-neglected and unglamorous body part known as the rotator cuff. Either way, the average guy will be out of action for a little while, at least until the next Men’s Health comes out.

On it will be a new Men’s Health guy, and his workout plan will at least partially contradict the last month’s routine. Nonetheless, the average guy will study the new Men’s Health guy’s plan and begin using it as soon as he can return to action, thus starting the cycle all over again.

In the back of the average guy’s mind, he must be aware that there’s a reason why the Men’s Health guy is always an athlete, actor or hip-hop star who actually has considerable time and money budgeted toward his appearance. He probably won’t ever make the cover of Men’s Health because no one cares enough to be willing to pay him to look a certain way.

So, you might ask, “How does Men’s Health stay in business?”

I would answer, “Because the average guy buys it.”

You might ask the follow-up question: “Buys what? The magazine, or the unrealistic ideal that he can look like a cover model?”

To which I would reply: “Is there a difference between the two?”

After all, if there weren’t unrealistic ideals to pursue, what would we average guys spend our time doing?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Different Personalities

So maybe I should be glad I haven't been able to continue Korean classes.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Overattentive Mothers Breed Kitchen-Chicken Champions

Before I switched jobs, I was most apprehensive about my new living conditions. I would be living with my mother-in-law and her son in their small apartment until my fiancée could move to Seoul and we could live together.

Since that bright, blessed day will apparently take place some time well after our August wedding, I anticipated many, many months of treading carefully around my wife-to-be’s mother. The bright sport, I believed, would be found in my brother-in-law, Dong-ho. Unlike his non-English speaking mother, Dong-ho can communicate with me a little.

Unlike his mother’s aggressively traditional Korean ways, Dong-ho has traveled extensively, speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese, and even had a long-term relationship with a Japanese woman.

Also, while his mother may have been content to master home economics, he works in management at a computer company. My only fear was that his duties, which frequently take him on business trips abroad, would leave me with no backup against his mother and her startling, incomprehensible shouting. Before I ever understood a word she said, I feared that my hearing, if not my heart, would likely fail.

However, since I started living there, I have actually had an unfamiliar peace of mind regarding some things. Since I moved in, I have never in my life had so few questions about what I would eat for dinner or how it would be prepared. I’ve never wondered as to whether or not I’d have clean, ironed clothes ready for work or for the gym. Also, unlike the times when I lived with other guys, there haven’t been any standoffs over who will do the dishes.

Men who share apartments will often play a kind of “kitchen-chicken” game, piling dirty dish upon used cup upon nasty pot, washing no more than two-three items of kitchenware at a time whenever they need to eat. Silently, they dare the other to be the one who gives in and decides to wash the whole lot of dishes. After many years, I eventually transcended such petty displays of misspent masculinity, and learned to wash my dishes upon using them.

With such tendencies acquired, I have offered to help my mother-in-law with the dishes, or at least take them to the sink for her. However, when the opportunity I arises, I can scarcely rise from my seat and lift my plate before she swoops upon me, shouts“It’s okay!” in Korean, and spirits them away for a thorough scrubbing.

How convenient it must be to live with her, I would think. Of course, I amend those thoughts to say that it must indeed be convenient for those who cannot fully comprehend what she says, thus capping the amount of yelling she will do. Her children must have been well taken care of. Maybe she got no higher on the career ladder than housewife, but one could never accuse her of not playing to her strengths! Then she left for a week to visit her sister in another city, and I saw how being so well-taken care of affects one’s progeny.

I was also out of town for the first two days of her absence. Upon my return, I noticed something I’d never seen in her house: dirty dishes. A stack of dirty dishes, in fact. Dong-ho has spent his 36 years on this earth constructively, in terms of his professional life, language acquisition, and in his knowledge of the world’s finest literature and cinema. He’s also, I’ve find, turned out to be a highly formidable competitor at kitchen-chicken, not to mention “laundry-chicken,” and “who-will-be-the-first-to-break-down-and-buy-toilet-paper-chicken.”

Like a marathon runner who doesn’t need water or a swimmer who doesn’t breathe, Dong-ho not only doesn’t play by the same rules as other competitors, he’s not even aware those rules exist. On the third night of his mother’s absence I came home from work and promptly slept for nearly 12 hours. On the fourth night, I had a mild case of food poisoning, but still managed to get a load of laundry done before turning in early.

On the fifth night, I spent an hour cleaning every dish Dong-ho had used since his mother left town. During that time, he never left his computer or even looked my way, despite the running sink, the furious scrubbing, or the times when I looked back at him and attempted to set him on fire with my eyes.

At least by the next night he had decided to wash his own clothes (which he’ll have to do, because dishes are one thing; I’m not handling another man’s dirty undergarments unless he’s a) my son and/or b) paying for graduate school tuition). However, three days after washing his clothes, they still lay packed in the washing machine, clinging post-spin cycle to the outer ring or that cold, neglected appliance.

Eight days after her departure, my mother-in-law returned to the home we share. Every time she looked into a room, she began yelling a new set of incriminations at Dong-ho, none of which I may ever understand (which is fine with me, as long as they’re not being yelled in my direction).

Her authoritative voice accomplished something I’d only imagined seeing: it got Dong-ho to move from him computer and help around the house. An impressive feat, no doubt, but I can’t help wondering if she should’ve started yelling when he was younger.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Koreans Must Evolve with their Democracy

Note: blogging when you don't have a computer of your own that's hooked up to the Internet is hard. Hopefully that situation will change soon, though.

The office of The Korea Herald is next to city hall in Seoul. On most nights it's around 6 p.m. that I usually leave work, which is about the time the protestors usually start to arrive and the riot police have already begun gearing up. Many alleyways will be blocked, and the roads will be too congested for many cars and buses to pass through.

At its peak, some sources say the number of protestors who were showing up on any given night may have been as few as 100,000 or as many as 700,000. I never stuck around to count, because I knew the number, however big, was enough to put individuals of foreign appearance at risk.

Ostensibly, the group is against current president Lee Myung-bak and the importation of unsafe beef, rather than ant-American, per se. However, certain signs that I noticed in the crowd with a caricature of Lee standing in front of a stars-and-stripes adorned eagle (neither drawn in a flattering manner) hardly put me at ease.

President Lee came into office this spring on a platform of economic development and bolstering U.S.-Korean relations. Part of his plan for doing both of those things was to see to it that a free trade agreement with the United States was approved. Among the stipulations of that particular deal was to lift all trade barriers against beef made in America.

My brother-in-law — who supports trade with America, but is against the beef deal and despises Lee — occasionally joins the protests. On the first night he joined, I saw him leave with a sign stating “MB quit, and I go home.” I can correct the sign’s grammar, but his limited English fluency makes it hard to further discuss its content.

Last year, former President Roh Moo-hyun (whom my brother-in-law respects) was the one who actually negotiated this deal with the U.S. The FTA agreement was on of the things Lee campaigned on, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote, more than 22 points above his nearest competitor in the race. Most people might see this as a strong endorsement of the new president's platform.

"Most people," however, don't live in Korea, and don't understand the attitudes that the Korean people have toward their government.

Maybe the most endearing characteristic of the Korean people is their passion, be it for family, for country, or for education. Their devotion to family leads them to sacrifice their comfort so that their children can have better lives. Their dedication to their country has allowed Korea to survive as a sovereign nation despite the presence of much bigger, more well-known neighbors.

Their zeal for education has also lead them to commit many admirable deeds, including the widespread hiring of American liberal arts majors who can hardly even work for free in their home countries.

Now and then, though, their passion goes beyond the stage of impressive to the point of being downright frightening.

Ever since the days when before World War II, when their peninsula was occupied by the Japanese, the people of Korea have taken to the streets to demonstrate their disapproval of the government. Thousands of those who protested against the occupiers from Japan ended up dead, and tens of thousands more in jail, but their actions gave hope to the people and have been commemorated ever since.

Starting in the 1960s President Park Chung-hee was determined to make South Korea an economic powerhouse, even if it meant rigging elections to keep him in power indefinitely, silencing all voices of dissent, and allowing industries to keep their workers on the job at all hours of the day and in miserable conditions.

Then, in 1970, a tailor named Jeon Tae-il set both himself and a copy of the national labor code on fire in downtown Seoul. Until he succumbed to the flames, Jeon repeatedly chanted "We are not machines! Enforce the labor code!" His death lead to further protests throughout the decade, and the government's ruthless reaction to those protests eventually lead to Park's assassination in 1979.

Since the late 1980s South Korea has been a veritable economic power and they have enjoyed the relatively free and fair elections. In 1987, it elected its first civilian president, and last year Lee became its first businessman to be head of state.

However, though the government seemingly has evolved, the people's perspectives toward it have not. In 2002, two schoolgirls were killed by a U.S. military vehicle and then found not guilty of wrongdoing by an American military court.

The people took to the same streets they are demonstrating in now, demanding that the soldiers piloting the vehicle be brought to trial in a Korean court and demanding that the agreement between their government and the American military be renegotiated. They believed that their country was being bullied by a distant, stronger nation and that their government was too ineffectual to do anything about it.

The fact that the accident had been just that — an accident — and had taken place on a road with very limited visibility was less important than this nationalistic narrative.

In 2003, during negotiations of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, farmer and activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself to death after unveiling a banner reading "The WTO kills farmers."

In 2006, an assailant attacked Park Geun-hye, daughter of the totalitarian former president and a current parliament member. Park, who leans to the right but is well within her country’s democratic mainstream, needed 60 stitches after he slashed her face with a knife.

Then, last year, as the so-called KORUS free trade agreement was being negotiated, Heo Se-Wook, a taxi driver in his mid-50s, set himself on fire in protest. He was extinguished by police on the scene, but later died of infection.

As of this writing, protestors are still crowing the streets of Seoul at night, though their numbers are starting to ebb and they have begun to move on to other issues. Having been thrashed in both the most-recent presidential and parliamentary elections, the liberal United Democratic Party refuses to join the current legislative session in protest of the beef deal. Every day that they sit out the business of government in the hopes of making themselves politically relevant is another day that the nation’s current strike of truck drivers and shippers goes unaddressed.

Different sources still debate whether 30-month-old beef from America is truly unsafe. That President Lee has made mistakes, particularly in his arrogant approach to the issue, is almost universally acknowledged.

But the time has come for the Korean people to understand that this is not how democracies function. Protests against the Japanese and the Park government were justified because they had not a voice in how those governments made decisions. Lee, on the other hand, won a free and fair election.

For protestors who clog the streets calling for the resignation of the president — who hasn’t even had time to adapt to the reins of government — and resort to violence against themselves and politicians may give future leaders the impression that democracy was a failed concept here. For UDP members to manipulate such behavior at this time is beyond irresponsible; it is shameful.

I have grown to love Korea more with each passing month that I’ve been here. However, I think that if democracy is to succeed here, it will be up to the people to change not just their government, but how they react to it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Two Evils

Let's see, with McCain we get to station troops in Iraq for 100 years. With Obama, we get ... well, this.
Cthulhu it is.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Better Perspectives Come with Bigger Stomachs

A curious thing happened to me recently: I moved in with my Korean mother-in-law. Now, some might say that she’s not my mother-in-law yet, because my fiancée and I haven’t walked down any symbolic aisles together, but then again, I could say that my bride-to-be and I registered our union with the government on the grounds that it would make it easier for me to get a new visa.

Not having that new visa would’ve made it a lot harder for me to change jobs without getting deported, and getting deported would’ve made it a lot harder for me to make it to work by 10 a.m. every morning.

Having acquired this necessary visa, I started my new work in Seoul and needed a place to stay, so her mother took me in. I am bonded to her daughter by law, but not by living conditions, as she continues her work in a smaller city two hours from Seoul.

Thus, I may have become the first man in recorded history to have a mother-in-law before he really has a wife.

My job change was an improvement in every notable way except housing conditions, since, unlike my last occupation, living arrangements are not provided by the company. For this reason, no one I’ve talked to about my current arrangement has questioned its necessity. What they have done, however, is openly question its chances of success.

There are, after all, plenty of documented cases in which the institution known as the mother-in-law has been a detriment toward her son/daughter-in-law’s marriage/happiness/will to live.

Furthermore, I have, in the past, made comments that probably weren’t the best predicator of good relations: statements after our first meeting like, “Only the first 10 minutes were terrifying,” and observations in later meetings like “There’s something about the volume and manner in which she talks that makes me want to hack open my own jugular vein in order to escape into sweet, blessed quiet” haven’t been good portents of things to come.

But now I have lived with her for a week, and in that space of time, one could probably find something good to say about, say, Mao Zedong (who knows, maybe he had really good grooming habits).

The fact that I speak minimal Korean and she speaks even less English certainly hasn’t changed. That she wants to do things her own way and her own way only is just as I remembered. That she often discusses her plans with those in the same room as her in much the same tone of voice that you or I would with someone a football field’s distance away is much the same.

On the other hand, there’s the food. Having not been recognized as a culinary expert by any notable person or group, I’d have little credibility if I touted the quality of her cooking. What I can do, on the other hand, is croon the commendations of its quantity.

Every night I come home from work hungry. When I enter the door, I usually find her waiting for me, usually with a side of beef and assortment of vegetables.

These she prepares for me, cutting, baking and mixing until my stomach is past the yardstick of satisfaction and nearer to the site of splitting open. At this point I must gesture to her that I cannot eat anymore and am getting ready for bed. Her smile reveals all her teeth and she asks me, in two of the Korean words I’ve grown to grasp, if I ate well. With two more Korean words I’m usually able to say that, yes, of course I did.

Then I retreat to my room, which, during my working hours, has gotten as clean as I could possibly imagine it being without great quantities of my possessions disappearing. It will remain like this until the next evening, when it will, despite all odds, be even cleaner.

The room I use in her home is approximately six feet wide by seven feet long, leaving me with space that just long enough for my bed, which is just long enough my legs. It’s hardly ideal, but due to the sheer volume of dinner I usually consume, I’m typically unable to do much moving and thus tend to sleep quite well.

Eight-and-a-half to nine hours later I awake to prepare for work. By this point, my mother-in-law, after her usual five-six hours of sleep, has already prepared a breakfast consisting of fruit, eggs, toast and cereal (the one Western concession I’ve been able wrangle in our food bargaining).

Since my food from the night before is usually only digested in part, I typically reach the bursting point much sooner at this meal. I tell her I must leave.

“Did you eat well?” she asks.

“Of course,” I tell her in Korean. I can’t yet tell her that, by the time I find a new place to live, I’ll be twice the man I once was, but I’m working on it.

I came to Korea to gain a bigger perspective. Maybe doing so comes with a bigger stomach.

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