Sunday, August 21, 2011

Attack of the Perm

A disease festers and spreads each day in South Korea. It isn’t an immune disorder or a venereal disease; it doesn’t destroy organs or weaken limbs. No, it is a follicle epidemic that is voluntarily, and enthusiastically, contracted by the men of this country. It is the long standing love of Korean men with the perm.
                I began noticing this trend at the start of spring when the snow was receding from the sidewalks and hats were receding from pressed down hairdos. The men strutted free from galoshes and overcoats, ready to take long strides in vinyl, shimmering pants and sparkling jewel-like shirts. Everything was glistening from the studs on their bow-ties to the opulent watches that weighed down their wrists like diamond shackles. Then, slowly, their hair began to grow. They sprouted up like skyscrapers. The bouffant, the beehive, the pompadour, all of the styles worn by crooning singers and doo-wop groups from the 1950s paraded the streets of Daejeon—at one point I even saw a Jerry-curl. I began watching them and taking notes.
I discovered that much like peacocks Korean men drape themselves in bright colors and jewels to attract the attention of the opposite sex. They became walking bank accounts, wearing their wealth, and sometimes lying about it, in their clothing.  
                But it didn’t stop with the men. The disease was passed on like gonorrhea blinding a child. I thought they would give the boys a fashion choice, a chance to see why this style had faded with oversized Robin Hood hats and platform shoes with fishes in them. I thought if I asked the children, I could discover at which age this love of the curling, feathered hair occurred. And then I could persuade a new generation to abandon it—unless they decided to become pimps. I was distraught by the information given to me by a group of seven-year-olds.
                “Very manly,” was the reply of most students. “Korean men good looking,” was the other.
                I thought they would stop at tales of the splendor of the perm, and only prepare their children for it in adulthood the same way an aging, patriotic soldier tells his son that one day he will fight for his country if he chooses. But these Koreans would not leave the fate of their young men’s hair to chance and predilection. It began with one little boy showing up looking like a member of the Marcels. His hair swirled up to a rounded dome like a cone of soft-serve chocolate ice cream. I passed him three times before asking him about his new hairdo.
                “My mother take me…you like?” he asked with a wide smile as he rose out of his seat to show the rest of the class. I nodded in shock, and avoided any insult to Korean fashion culture. At first I thought this one hairdo was innocuous and it would have no effect on the school. I was wrong. They began flowing in like plagued rats boarding a ship headed for Venice. Glistening helmets streaked the walls in pomade and gel, slug trails that stained the tiles and wall paper leaving behind the memory of failed fashion. I tried to be culturally sensitive, and waited for the adults to see the lunacy in a child in soccer cleats, a basketball jersey and magenta Umbro shorts having a hairstyle meant for a bell-bottom, wide lapel suit, but they never did.
                I began making subtle jokes to a few Korean women I knew, hoping they would influence the men. “Wow, I never knew they made motorcycle helmets out of human hair.” Most of my jokes were met with raised eyebrows and questions as to what I meant. The sickness had taken their eyesight away. I saw pictures of their husbands, all shorter than five-foot-five with hair that plumed out of frame.
 I gave up asking, and inquiring. I am now working on containment and tolerance.  I cannot argue fashion—and have no desire to—with a  country that believes asphalt sparkling black pants and a black belt go well with scuffed, brown patent leather shoes. I only seek to make a few Koreans appear less ridiculous to Western eyes. But then again I wear slip-on black dress shoes with jeans and a black baseball cap, so I have little fashion wisdom to pass on to these people. They will just have to avoid mirrors and foreigners, and let their glinting hair fall over their ears to stop the roars of criticism. The male perm will continue to happily infect generations and remain contained on this small peninsula.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I watch a police car hump over the hill. Its siren trails red and blue searchlights over the buildings like some kind of Safari jeep looking for a trophy. I’m watching from a distance. I’m aware of the Koreans awareness of me—a six foot three white man covered in tattoos. I’m also aware of Koreans antipathy towards those with tattoos, viewing them with hesitancy and wondering if they are foreign criminals.
                While I’m watching the car pass, I look up at the neon-red cross sitting on a funeral pyre of thin white wooden beams. It looks like a disjointed ladder that no one sawed the ends off of; they jut out in little nubs climbing to the heavens. I hear music coming from the basement, lined with pews and linoleum, each night as I walk home. They mostly play drum solos and horn instruments; now and then I hear a violin.
 I’m making my nightly purchase of four Budweisers, three bottles of soju, a pack of crackers and a few bottles of ginger ale. I drink all of the beers, eat half of the crackers, drink one bottle of soju, and then play Gold Miner on the internet until the Simpsons come on and I pass out from booze and boredom at midnight. On the weekends, the Simpsons come on at two in the morning, so I have to spend my time at the bar talking and waiting, checking my watch to make sure I didn’t miss the show.
                The police car passes and bounces over the piles of gravel and dirt that mark off the street. They’re like the half painted garage your father always says he’s going to finish. At the end of one darkened street in my neighborhood is a giant crane rusting and dusty like a Trans-Am sitting on cinder blocks on someone’s front lawn.
                My weeknights crawl like the cop car or a slow moving river of sap. Time feels like it moves slower here, and not in a good way. I have five months left here, and I think I’ll miss my abundance of time to ruminate.

Monday, August 1, 2011


The Casinos of Busan called me like sirens promising their rocks were dull and ready to be docked. I was sitting in the Paradise Casino with two stacks of chips. I gave the croupier forty thousand won, or forty American dollars, and was given two towers of chips. I later learned that each chip was worth two dollars and fifty cents.
                I bet black. I had spotted the casino from the crowded stone steps that lead down to the beach. Haeundae Beach slopes down into the Pacific Ocean into a small inlet with houses climbing like rows of multicolored chairs up the lush, green hills. The hotels tower over the half moon and umbrellas huddle together in an orange mass that parts into small streets leading to the sea. I told Carlos and Shea, two coworkers and friends that work with me at the Hokwon, that we would spend five minutes at the beach and then find the casino.
                “You’re too much,” Shea laughed as she followed Carlos to the Pacific. Five minutes later I was circling beneath the bridge-walkway that connected the hotel foundations of the two lobbies and bars of the Paradise trying to figure out how to get to the casino perched on top of the squat structures like a medieval tower. After harassing several valets, clerks and receptionists I walked past an open bar with green liqueurs and Waterford crystal glasses and found the casino.
                Shea watched in amazement as seven times in a row the white ball clattered into a black bucket and my pile grew larger. To enter the casino you need a passport or an Alien Registration Card—a card that tells people you are working in the country and have a visa. Koreans are not allowed to gamble in the casinos they are only to work in them. The casinos are an eclectic mixture of Asians stacking money and smoking thin cigarettes while they flip through books they pull out of their hip bags. A man cursed in several languages at the Baccarat table behind us. I couldn’t help but think if we were in Atlantic City after he called the croupier a, “Motherfucking asshole,” for the fifth time he would’ve been beaten and thrown out the front door and banned from playing. But in the Paradise Casino a few people politely cleared their throats and the ball kept clacking like a train over the buckets.
                I slowly began to lose my money, and then I lost all of it. Carlos made a small bet, and Shea watched in amazement as I made small towers of chips and then watched them demolished.
                I lost sixty dollars in total. This did not discourage me, but made me emboldened for the next day. We found a bar called, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” with a picture of the Lombard building in contrast in front of the Schuylkill River. Inside there was a bartender named, Pooh, who told us he gave attractive lonely girls free drinks of Bacardi 151 rum. After we told the waitress in Korean she was beautiful, he offered to teach the word for ugly in Hangul which promoted the waitress to giggle and attack him with a rolled up bar rag.
                After spending the next morning wallowing in my bed and trying not to think, we walked down to a promenade with shops lining a limestone street. They sold American brands like Nike, Addidas, Levi’s. Levi’s had a bikini store with no jeans in it, which I thought was odd. We ate lunch in a restaurant that looked like the inside of a doll house. It was painted pink with white pew benches and floral throw pillows on all of the benches. The seafood in Busan is the best in all of South Korea. We ate it everywhere, but the spaghetti mare and pescattore were especially fresh when served in a restaurant with the d├ęcor of Barbie’s Playhouse.
                That night Carlos and I took a stroll down Texas Street at a little past midnight. Neon signs fought to grab hold of your eyes-- orange and green and blue letters snaking around to form America names like Hollywood, New York and Los Angeles. The streets glimmered and for a moment I was confused when some women in a blouse tied together over her sagging breasts grabbed me by the crouch and pulled me into a sliding door shed that was claiming to be a bar.
                “You want the sex,” she shot at me. The skin around her eyes sagged down like a hound’s and she had the beaten face of an old whore. She felt the need to continuously to grab Carlos’s crotch and mine as if we had forgotten why we were there.
                “I’m out of here,” I said. I pushed pass her friend who was pointing at a bottle of whiskey and offering a deal: forty dollars for a drink and a fuck. I didn’t take the deal.
                We stumbled back to our hotel, which was called The Busan Tourist Hotel. After two days we got back on a train, and went back to Daejeon. I considered changing my name and staying, but there was no job, and then all of my stuff might have been sold by the company.