Well, I’ve been packing all day and getting things in order around the apartment. I need to head over to the subway station no later than noon tomorrow to hop on the airport shuttle to take me to Incheon. The subway takes roughly the same amount of time (40 minutes to 1 hour) but considering I’ll have to luggage bags to check in I’d rather just pay the 9 dollars for the direct transportation and not have to worry about transfers or getting glared at for taking up too much space on a possibly crowded train car. Last minute errands such as grabbing a refill on my contacts and picking up a lot of crunky bars and other assorted candies have filled my day. I’ve loaded a ton of movies on my iPhone for the flight and researched what I can bring through customs to the states. This part was kind of undefined, vague to say the best.

My friend in Arizona has a foodie amigo who had requested I bring in some kimchi. I got the processed kind in the sealed bag so hopefully that’s fine. I also couldn’t figure out what the limits on Soju were, a friend said he brought 12 of the small bottles and a few bokbanjoo’s (Korean raspberry wine, whose spelling I’m probably butchering) and some Chongha (sweeter little sister to Soju usually favored by the ladies). I’m a little more cautious and am just bringing four of the plastic bottles and a single of bukbanjoo. I guess worst case scenario they take a couple of the two dollar bottles away. No big loss, I’m not a huge fan of the stuff but it’s nice to bring some form of local beverage for the friends back home to experience.

This last week has been a stutter between killing time at my apartment and rushing around town saying goodbye to friends. Friday was a real treat when my good Canadian friend from Ilsan and I went to the Jeju Rock and Resistance Show in Hongdae at Freebirds. Ten dollars got you entrance to see all ten bands. My buddy’s girlfriend was one of the volunteer coordinators for it, she usually does a lot of work promoting awareness of the Korean “comfort women” who were sex slaves used by the Japanese during World War 2. This makes particular event was to raise funds and awareness of the ongoing opposition to the proposed US Naval base being installed on Jeju Island. The area in question is the site of much natural beauty which has earned it a UNESCO placing and also Gangjeong Village. From what I heard there it is an amazing area and the people are strongly resisting displacement, many also said that it was not the US Navy who was pushing for this exact location but Samsung who is a partner in the site construction/development. For more information check out this link.

Powerful speakers and killer bands really delivered a strong message for this cause.

The bands were quite varied in both genre and skill but all in all I think most everyone was quite happy to have come out for the show. I was pleased to actually hear my first reggae band perform and, wonders never cease, one of the musicians played the rarely scene mellodica which is kind of like a small handheld keyboard you blow into while you play. Awesome! My favorite band of the night was an instrumental trio of two girls and one guy. The gent played a small traditional wooden flute, acoustic guitar and did some synthwork using a Macbook. The girls were both playing their hearts out on their respective traditional instruments I had never seen before. The first was a Haegeum and the other was a Geomungo. This was a mesmerizing performance and it was great to see these amazing ancient instruments creating such powerful and resonant music. I was also quite happy because it took me back to my childhood when I used to play with the miniature Japanese variants of these that hung from our Christmas tree. My father had acquired them during his stay in Japan as part of a high school exchange. Oh yeah, Seoul’s belly-dancing troupe did a performance. I was impressed at their grace and art. I was also cracking up at seeing many of the guys there getting elbowed in their ribs by their girlfriends when they outright gawked at the performance with open jaws. I always try to watch respectfully but was glad to be single at that particular instance, haha.

Saturday I showed the two new hires (a couple) to my school around Itaewon and Haebanchong foreign areas of Seoul. They have only been here a couple weeks and have taken a liking to Korean food but really appreciated breakfast at Wolfhounds and a trip to the High Street Market to see their selection of comfort foods from home. The same friend from Ilsan and my Korean buddy who I’ll call London because of his strong accent after studying their came out and we grabbed a bite to eat and some drinks at Phillies Pub which I highly recommend. One of the new hires was from Philadelphia so he got a kick out of the namesake. Ilsan and I went to a quick show while London showed the duo around Itaewon. It was one stop past Itaewon in the opposite direction of Noksapyeong in a small DIY concert space setup under a coffee house and adjacent to a small bar. It was titled an “Experimental” show and was definitely quite original. From discordant thrash like Christfuck, to the ever building/looping/cascading waves of sounds of the band Ten (recently back from Japan) to a unskilled drummer/kazooist who invokes a sense of Andy Kaufman style humor “I am sorry I not so good, the trumpet player Kenny G is in England tonight.” It was, well, an experience.

Not much happened after this except making new friends with a bunch of EPIK (public school) teachers just out of orientation, last call at Sam Ryans and an after hours party back at Phillies Pub some of the regulars invited me and Ilsan two. Amazing how many new friends you make right before you leave for a while. Irony!

Well, I need to get back to packing before heading out to one last samgyeopsal (BBQ pork) meal and Winter Hof night with the coworkers. The next post will be a photo blog about my trip yesterday to Insadong and Gyeongbok Palace but right now I don’t have time to upload all those photos. Until then, Syonara my friends!

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It’s been an eventful last week. I had a pretty productive weekend and went to the dentist for the first time in a few years. If you go for a span without a cleaning there is a certain amount of apprehension before breaking the spell of not visiting. My worries were eased. Though I did have a couple very minor cavities the dentist assured me that they weren’t anything to be concerned about and that all in all the chompers were in great shape.

The hygienist was a little nervous and giggling quite a bit as she worked on me. She was mortified when she sprayed the water pick across my face and inadvertently jabbed me with the dental pick. I took it all in stride and was laughing with her as she dried off my face “I didn’t know I was so sad.” Haha. With no insurance a cleaning and an X-ray  only cost me $120. The appointment is setup in June when I get back to tack care of the cavities and all in all I was feeling pretty satisfied.

Saturday I dropped by Hongdae with one of my Korean buddies. I felt kind of bad for how things turned out. He doesn’t really kick it in that neck of the woods so after a dinner at Shamrock I showed him the ever infamous Zen Bar 1. For the record this fiasco of an establishment isn’t really my bag of tea but he wanted to see some of the more packed establishments and likes hanging out at establishments similar to this. It was early into the night so this was one of the few places with many patrons. I grew weary of the noise and excessive intoxication and decided to head out before the last subway departed back home, my Ilsan homies were incommunicado after a COEX food/wine buffet and was feeling uninspired. Unfortunately he wanted to stay and hang out with some Americans he met. I received a text the next day stating that one of the girls he was talking to charged a few bottles to his tab for the price of 800,000 won ($700ish). I hate it when other foreigners, especially ones from my home country, act scandalous.

The following day was a group excursion up to Kintex in Ilsan for the 4D festival. While this sounded great in theory with appealing promo videos the reality was disappointing. What my friends didn’t seem to translate when looking up this event was that it’s pretty much geared for kids. I love teaching kids but it’s not my idea of a good time spending an afternoon at flashy yet simplistic, glorified amusement park. Especially in a foreign country where there is no English directions. Lesson learned? Look up some reviews from other foreigners beforehand, don’t be the Guinea Pig.

Graduation was on Monday which went off without a hitch. My kids were outstanding in delivering their speeches to the biased audience of their parents. One of my highlights was definitely the conversation with the father of one of my more mischievous students. “So my daughter was behaved in your classes?” He asked with a stoic face. “Yes, she was.” I answered somewhat untruthfully.” He broke into a big grin and replied “You are a nice teacher, but I don’t believe you” and proceeded to laugh heartily. Classic.

My vacation has now begun and it’s off to a superb start. Yesterday was a holiday so six of the crew from school all went out to Yeouinaru on the banks of the Han river. One nice things about being right next to this subway is that it is the lowest in South Korea and if artillery coming from up North were to fall (incredibly improbable) you can take shelter 9 stories below sea level. Tandem bikes and groups of families and young adults on mats were abundant as everyone wanted to enjoy a rare 50+ (Fahrenheit) day. The evening was finished of by a visit to a local Chinese/Korean restaurant near our apartments for Shabu Shabu. This is a dish which starts out with one large pot of boiling broth which is divided into two sides. One features a salty flavor and the other a spicy. You are given a base of greens, bok choy and mushrooms to add to the soup and an assortment of banchan (ever present Korean side dishes) including thinly sliced radish kimchi, sesame tofu ribbons with green onions and peanuts. The selection of protein is up to you and our group of 7 choose the mix with thinly sliced lamb, beef, tripe, frozen tofu cubes and seafood (octopus, muscles and scallops). Sustainful feasting ensued and the entire meal cost a mere 40,000 won ($35) for all of us. I was a little shocked I hadn’t tried this yet but not a month goes by I don’t discover a new cuisine Seoul has to surprise me with (especially since I started eating meat in the last two months).

Today I visited the pension offices and was pleasantly surprised at how easy the whole process was. My round trip ticket didn’t raise any eyebrows and it only cost about 10 minutes of my life. 10 days after I depart I get 10% of my income deposited into my Korean bank account. I applied for a global Visa card from Woori Bank (1-2% surcharge on all purchases) and should be able to easily visit Los Angeles after Arizona before I cruise back North to the Pacific Northwest and my beloved Seattle until the end of April. I’m also hoping to pick up a new laptop while there so these funds were kinda crucial for that kind of spendage. Tonight there is a benefit show in Hongdae with some friends and start my round of goodbyes until Spring before departure next week.

Now I just need to decide what to do for my remaining 8 days. Visit a Jjimjilbang for the first time? Maybe see a Japanese vs. Korean rockabilly band battle? Not quite sure yet. I do know one thing. I love it when your biggest looming problem is how to deal with the freedom of a two month vacation. Viva!

 

Well, the school year is starting to wind down and everyone here at my school is getting ready for some big changes. Only two of the Korean teachers are staying so offices have been pretty packed and some of us have a lot of teachers observing our classes. I was a little embarrassed on Tuesday when my drama classes were observed by four of the new Kindergarten teachers. These activity classes involve a lot of singing and dancing.

My vocal chords are not really serenade-esque (as anyone who has been to a Norebang with me can testify to…) and since the songs don’t come with associated dances. That means that I get to make up all of the dances in my class. Even though I was president of Thespian Society in high school I’m not really into choreography. I always did the dramas in the Fall and opted to play rugby instead of do the musicals in the Spring.

I was pretty surprised when one of the new teachers came up to me in the hall and asked me “Are you Nathan and friends with Mary and Jacob?” Turns out that she was one of their co-teachers at their hagwon that closed in November. For a city of almost 12 million it still feels like a small world.

I’m slammed at the moment with projects and paperwork. Currently trying to figure out if I can get my pension (roughly 10% of my paycheck) reimbursed since I’m going home for so long. An extra $1,300 would definitely help out in terms of leaving enough money to cover student loans and maybe pickup a laptop while I’m back home. Looks promising but keeping my fingers crossed. Fighting off a sinus infection at the moment which is probably why it’s so easy to get distracted by writing an overdue blog post.

Wish me luck tomorrow, have an appointment at the dentist and it’s been a few years since my last visit. Really hoping I don’t need too much time under the drill, if any.

Well things have been a bit hectic here the last couple weeks. Last Wednesday my manager pulled me into her office…and informed me that they were unable to book as many students for the kindergarten classes starting in March. The director was willing to be “generous” and offer a 3 month (unpaid) vacation back home starting in March until June and then come back as an afternoon teacher. “Isn’t that wonderful?” was the delivery. To say I was a little shocked would be an understatement. I just got back from one vacation, and my bank account reflected this. A 3 month limbo, even back home, is not really what I was looking for. If I had a lot of savings and didn’t mind burning it all a backpacking trip through Europe would be great but my current funds don’t really allow for such an expedition.

In many ways I have to reassure myself that coming over here and is not just taking a small detour in accomplishing the goals I have in life. I look forward to Masters school and starting my career back home and justify my time spent here as a great way to become a more well-rounded student and gain a larger perspective on the world. I do truly believe this. There is a small nagging voice in the back of my head that does sneak up from time to time and sel-criticisms of just procrastinating and enjoying the easy lifestyle that Korea offers ex-pat teachers is not the path right now. 3 months of coach surfing and spending all of my savings would be giving those self-doubts a little credence in my opinion.

Back in Bellingham I worked afternoon and evenings at UPS immediately after graduating. While having the day to myself was nice I remember that a lot of my time interacting with friends was later at night and most of the friends who socialize at these hours do so at bars over drinks. This is all fine when you are still riding that postgraduation high. I’m 26 now and trying to flex some of the maturity I will need to really accomplish the things I desire to do in my life and revisiting this lifestyle doesn’t have a huge appeal to me.

Plus, while many teachers I talk to don’t really like the kindergarten classes (especially other guys) these are the times when I get the most gratification from teaching. The physical energy you have to expend is quite a bit more with students at this age but the payoff is immense. The influence and admiration you gain with them and being able to see how rapidly you are affecting them in a positive manner is one of my favorite things about teaching.

I explained both these things to my bosses and a compromise was struck. I am going home early March and coming back near the end of April to start kindergarten classes in June. My director gave me a decent raise and is going to put me back on the payroll in May. I will be the most veteran foreign and morning teacher at this point and the second longest teacher at my school. I will also be the oldest one. Amazing how much can change in one year.

Enough about work, on to my impromptou trip back home. It took a little scrambling to figure out the logistics but I’m already anticipating my return home. Aroung March 9th I fly out from Incheon to Tucson, Arizona. My best friend is attending school there for his Masters and has Spring Break starting on the 10th. I have never really been to the Southwest and look forward to not only the adventures but the warm temperatures and cuisine of an Arizona Spring. After a week or two there I’m cruising over to LA to reconnect with some friends and family for about a week and then flying up to Seattle for the duration of April.

Sometimes you have to roll with the punches, such is life. I’ve got my gloves laced tight, a smile on my face and am ready for some epic adventure-filled rounds Stateside. Viva!

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Thailand and I still miss it. Among the top of the list includes:

From city to country these shrines are ever abundant across the landscape of Thailand. Behind it you can just make up the pick up game of soccer by all the boys wearing sneakers in a dirt lot.

1. The laid-back mentality and generous hospitality of the locals.

2. The amazing cuisine (I definitely prefer the fresh vs. fermented style of authentic Asian cuisines which was a huge difference between Korea and Thailand), I’ve always enjoyed Thai food back home but it pales in comparison to the amazing variety and richness of the local dishes while there. Not to mention the dirt cheap prices. Example? Roasted Sea Bass and deep-fried Morning Glory with hard-boiled eggs.

If you can judge something by its lowest common denominator then let me just say this "Even the mall food was Good!"

3. The warm temperature in the 80s spent beach/pool side and some (but not all) of the cheap yet fairly decadent hotels I stayed at.

Catching some rays and reading some Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay with a Tiger Lager in hand. Oh yeah, those are waterfalls coming off the arches on the far end...

Instead of providing a full recap, my posts on Thailand are going to be focused upon two of the real highlights of my trip (which coincidentally I managed to actually take some photos of). The weekend market at Mo Chit in Bangkok and the island of Koh Samoi in Southern Thailand.

While I used to frequent the farmers’ market in my college-town of Bellingham I was in no way prepared for the daunting size and spectrum represented in the weekend market here. For example, at one point we became slightly lost in between the pet section and the florist section. Both were indoors and easily over an acre in size. The flora section was a nice break actually after the fauna section, not just because of the far more pleasing aroma. While it was nice to see so many dogs that I rarely see in Korea (Black Labs, Newfoundlands and German Shepherds to name a few) it was slightly depressing to see the size of the cages they were all enclosed in.

Leave a trail of bread crumbs when you enter...least you never exit the labyrinth of the indoor section of the market.

Immediately upon walking in I snagged a young coconut juice (best cure for the celebratory Christmas Eve night prior) for a mere 65 cents. This nectar of the gods has the same pH level of human blood and, fun fact of the day, was used as a substitute for saline when supplies were low during WWII. This was one of many different forms of juices you could purchase here, ranging from the familiar, Lemon, to the exotic, Rambutan, options were plentiful.

"Wait, so which one is the best to mix with snake's blood, the original Red Bull and Samsung?" Samsung is Thai Whiskey not the Korean company and Red Bull is from Thailand but has a different recipe here, syrupy and kinda feels like it has amphetamines in it...

Food was great as the small noodle/curry stalls operated on every corner. I gained quite a bit of respect for them right of the bat when I noticed that the basil, green onion and cilantro was all still alive, growing in vases in the center of the table. These as well as the green beans, cabbage and bean sprouts, were definitely taken advantage of while I feasted right next to other, Thai, American and Japanese, customers at the small plastic tables provided. Oh, did I mention the abundance of LIMEs in Thailand?! This delectable citrus is one of my favorites and I had developed a craving something fierce the prior. Add on to this that some stalls had small, mobile garden patches nearby and the atmosphere was superb.  Needless to say my hunger was sated and then some.

BANGARANG!

Sa-wat-dee kraup Green Thumb.

The diversity found at the locale was also amazing to me. You would see an Australian family on holiday, all drinking some Singha lager (Granny included),   shoulder to shoulder with a family of Sikhs on vacation from the subcontinent. The cacophony of different dialects and languages coming at you from all directions (megaphones, hawkers, conversations right next to you) was slightly disorienting at first. But much like a lot of the discordant music I like (definitely thinking of one of my favorite bands, Converge) after some time you fall into the groove of it and appreciate the harmonies therein.

Seoul is rather limited in comparison when it comes to cultural diversity. There is and immigrant population but it is by no means a real tourist destination. While the foreign district Itaewon and my area of residence may be exceptions, in terms of a large variety, the majority of non-natives you see here fit two types. American GIs and English teachers from one of the English dominant countries with Americans and Canadians being the majority here in Seoul.

The region I call home, Youngdeungpo-Gu, actually has the highest concentration of immigrants in the whole city. These are Chinese workers, if you look around closely the signs alternate between Hangul and Chinese characters. Some blocks are completely lacking in Neon signs and Hangul and are 100% Chinese. As my good Korean-American friend told me “It’s like I was magically transported from Seoul to Beijing.”

Did dabble in a little budget commerce myself, though they were all undoubtedly knock-offs I was pretty satisfied at what, for me, was quite a bit of shopping. For around $15 I purchased a pair of Chelsea home match trunks, RayBan shades, Diesel sandals and decent board shorts. Not too shabby for someone who abhors the mall and shops rarely to never. I was baffled at the Arabian gentleman who purchased a large quantity of Thai high-end cutlery and china plates and whatnot. Figure they must offer some shipping options. Personally, I wouldn’t want to try to hauling that through the packed, bustling crowds to get out.

More packed than a Seoul rush hour subway. No easy feat.

One thing I was glad we didn’t encounter across the vast yet cramped expanse of the market was the rather large cock-fighting section. Muay Thai matches with potential broken bones? Sure, they are volunteering for that. Animals eviscerating each other with razor blades? Not my bag. The tourist tuktuks smashing their way through the crowds with loud music out of low-quality speakers also wasn’t the most impressive.

Nonchalant as all get out. These kids were killin it.

On the flipside there was a multitude of singers and musicians busking on corners. From older gentlemen playing traditional drums to the groups or solo young boys in vibrant attire playing these wooden, almost Peruvian wind-pipe reminiscent, instruments. All in all I had a wonderful time and would definitely recommend this stop to anyone visiting Bangkok.

This month is off to a good start. We’ve had a few sporadic snow flurries (nothing sticks and it is minuscule amounts falling at best) but it has been very cold in the twenties at night and extremely dry. Hand and face lotion as well as chap stick are items I rarely use back home but over here it is a necessity. On the plus side these shorter days a lower temperatures are really making me look forward to my approaching vacation in Thailand. Nothing to increase the anticipation for the warm, sunny beaches of Koh Samoi like the onset of Seoul winter.

Anticipation rising!

The month started out a little somber as some of the friends I spent the most time with departed back home. My friends Jacob and Mary left for a week’s vacation before returning to Portland to reenter their lives there. I was acquaintances with Mary while attending Western and we both laughed as she left that it was our experiences in Korea that really solidified our friendship from being people you said hello to friends who knew the backgrounds and value of each other. Funny how being in an expat community can do that to you.

Ahhh, my futbol watching partners in crime, your presence will be missed over here.

Her boyfriend Jacob was probably my numero uno amigo over here. I will sincerely miss Yahtzee nights at the low-key Irish bar Madigans in Hwagok every Friday and talking smack while playing pool and darts with Ratatat playing in the background. He also had weekly appointments at an area just past my stop so we frequently got together in my hood every week on Tuesday or Thursday and would talk for hours at a local hof or outside the Cultwo Mart. We didn’t know each other in college but through our stories of our time there discovered a plethora of shared friends and adventures.

It’s a surreal feeling talking to a friend you’ve met in Seoul and piecing together that you were both at the same crazy, uber-granola house party in college. Unlike many friends I had to say my farewells to I look forward to future adventures in Portland and Seattle this upcoming Summer. So many of the people you meet here you know you will probably never see again outside of Seoul. It’s good to get the ones where you can already anticipate enjoying epic times in the near future back home.

A similar goodbye was my coworker Dallas. After 3 years at our Hagwon he was ready to try a different style of workplace. Though he will be back in January I do already miss our weeknights out. Not really being one to go huge on the Weekend nights outside of our neighborhood he was surprising keen on having good conversations/watching high-brow or less main stream movies and sharing a drink on the weeknight. An appreciation for these things is fairly lacking  in term of my other coworkers so the notable lack of entertainment on weeknights has been in strong contrast to last month.

Now that my friend base has significantly decreased I’m already hitting up quite a few more shows. Feel like I may have to go to some of those social mixer events to up the networking a little more. This weekend I attended a pretty good show at club spot with quite a few metalcore and some grind bands and then followed it up by attending the monthly spinning at Roots Time in Hongdae. Won a dollar (harhar) from my coworker because I encountered some “Fresh from Incheon” expats who just arrived last weekend at the Little Travelers’ show from the weekend before.

I had told them to check out Roots Time and my coworker had said there was no they’d cruise all the way back up from their base in Suwon to see somebody spinning vinyl at a hole in the wall. Turns out he underestimated the yearning for Reggae in a K-Pop fanatic culture, easy money…

The Little Travelers show featured 6 clubs and over 20 bands with all proceeds going to nonprofits for women with AIDS in South Africa. Nothing like rocking out to a good cause. While I was winning money and dipping my head to the tracks at Roots Time I also ran into my buddy from Finland who is a student at Yonsei University nearby. Libations were had into the wee hours and I gained a healthy respect for the Finnish ethanol tolerance.

Tuesday was also great as it was a good friend’s birthday. We had dinner at the Peruvian joint Cusco. The food was great. My Arroz con Pollo was excellent, I was tempted by the fusion chicken dish but Latin American curry seemed like it might be hit or miss so I went for the standard fare. One friend ordered the octopus ceviche and I must admit, for the first time eating raw tentacles it was really good. I even enjoyed the stringy seafood that adorned the dish along with the marinated red onions and hearty South American corn (bigger kernels and much starchier with a real chew factor). The birthday amigo and his girlfriend split a bottle of Chilean wine branded with El Diablo and spirits were high.

Arroz con Pollo Peruvian style was a great gastro start to the night.

We left there to get a nice cocktail at Lucky Strike up the block. My first month here we pulled this same itinerary and it was kind of surreal feeling my first case of Seoul nostalgia. After 7 months it still feels like I just showed up last week. I stuck with my classic Manhattan and felt like a Advertisement Exec baller as always. Lucky Strike is based on the cigarette which leaves for a lot of retro decor and a cool funky feel. It has a take out window on the side and interesting caricatures of alcohol etched into the windows. Rum is a guzzling pirate and Gin is a lidded, urban socialite. A swarthy Russian Vodka with the stereotypical Moscow tall hat and a bottle sticking out of his pocket while still ordering 1 more with a gloved had accompanied by a passed out Tequila with a droopy stache and a large sombrero complete the quartet.

Proof once more that nothing is trademarked in Korea.

Drinks are well made here and perfectly stiff. However the cost is a bit much (my Manhattan was 10,000 Won) and after already having splurge we went next door to Rock and Roll bar for one last drink before ending an earlyish night out. This was just one more example of how you can walk into a random divey looking basement bar here and be completely taken by surprised. The atmosphere was great, the drinks modest in cost, the help courteous and fluent in English and there was even a huge fluffy cat that walked like he owned the place. Excellent. I ended up having an extra drink of Red Rock (Korean made, fairly decent Amber Ale) on tap due to finding an unspoken gem like this. A brief spate of worry over the approaching midnight hour (average subway cut-off time) was solved by the ever helpful foreign helpline. Just dial 1330 and a friendly Seoulite who speaks English will help you with any inquires from “How late does the two-line run from Hapjeong to Daelim?” to “where can I find a pool with a diving in South East Seoul?”. Thank you Seoul, another successful night!

I’ve decided to devote a little more of my time here to documenting what books I’m enjoying in. As a child I had an insatiable appetite for reading and though I don’t go through many a week like I used to I still love to sit in the park and read a book or hasten the perceived time of subway transit with an epic tome. One of the highlights of solo hiking this summer was trekking to a good vantage and taking a breather while reading a chapter or two. You’re never lonely when you can dive into a great story!

The last two novels I’ve read have been superb reads and definitely add some further variety to the already eclectic library in my apartment. One of the things I truly cherish about good literature is the ability of a talented author to transport you to distant lands/cultures. Stepping into a different perspective in an elsewhere setting can be a wonderful salve for the occasional culture burnout days.

The first of these books was Hitching Rides with Buddha (first released as Hokkaido Highway Blues in the States) by Canadian author Will Ferguson. The author spent 5 years in Japan as an English teacher. To conclude his time in there he embarks on an epic journey to follow the fall of the Sakura (cherry blossoms) across the length of Japan. The sheer scope of his proposed journey from the Southernmost point of Cape Sata to Sapporo in the far North is admirable in its ambition. Add to this his means of travel, sticking out his opposable and hitchhiking, and you have a travel book unique when compared to many others.

Ferguson has a cutting wit that has let him form a colorful perspective on Japan’s culture over during his time in the gateway to the East which is evidenced in vivid and often hilarious quips throughout his journey. This tempered with a somewhat profound sense of the symbolic and a dash of personal truth finding about what his time here has really meant created a book that I voraciously read in a handful of days.

I’ve read many a fellow expat’s blog since deciding to come over to the land of the morning clam but most of them have centered around my host country and not the bordering ones. It was very refreshing to read such a clever and candid account of a different culture. Noting similarities and differences was very engaging. There is also a stark contrast between even the best written blog with its brief and fractured installments compared to a well written novel with an overall story and interweaving themes.

Walking on a path of falling cherry blossoms.

Japan has always intrigued me with its odd tetter-totter between a pervasive and intricate, sense of tradition balanced against a ravenous appetite for modernity. Similarities between this juxtaposition of old-school social hierarchy and cutting edge technological lifestyles are echoed strongly here in Korea.

The two top references for my impressions of Japan are two distinctly different sources. My father has told me numerous stories about his time as a high school exchange student in Japan in the early 70s. He spent two years taking correspondence courses at the University of Washington learning Japanese and his anecdotes offered me a unique glimpse of a foreign land as even a young child. Asking him about the miniature Japanese instrument ornaments we hung on our Christmas tree is the furthest reaching memory I have.

The other source is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. His vivid prose and sometimes baffling stories are rich in the folklore and nuances of Japanese society. My brother and I have both been known to invest much time in his books and are always on the lookout for the newest release. Though using vastly different methods of delivery both Murakami and my father are exceptional storytellers in their own trademark manner and have formed in me a very vivid sense of Japan with little to no actual personal exposure.

Kinda like if Chaim Potok and Stanley Kubrick got together to make an LA Confidential-esque story.

The second novel of note for me was a work of stark and prodigious imagination by Michael Chabon (the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The adventures of Kavalier and Klay”). The plot and setting of his story revolves around an audacious alter-history in which the Jewish societies displaced by the atrocities of the Holocaust did not relocate in the arid, scorching area of the Middle East but rather the cold, barren stretch of Sitka, Southern Alaska.

Surprisingly there was a proposal put before congress by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, back in the late 1930s that had tried to establish this very state. The residents of Alaska at the time weren’t terribly receptive and the bill never got very far.

I haven’t read literature so steeped in Jewish culture since I discovered Chaim Potok in Jr High. The differences between these two authors of the same cultural bent is as vast as eons heavy continental drift in opposite direction. Both feature a disgraced potential Tzadik but that is as far as the similarities extend.

Though I have never been a huge mystery genre fan, the gumshoe protagonist with a raw, rampantly cynical outlook on life while he rapidly plummets to a gritty rock-bottom pulls you in. The dark setting of Sitka on the brink of transformation due to US Reclamation is an apt one. You can feel the weary, jaded yet survivalistic perseverance of the characters in this book.

Reuben Sandwiches and Mighty Aphrodite

Living in the area where I grew up in rural/suburban Western Washington there were not a lot of opportunities to be exposed to the Jewish culture firsthand. My father realized that at one point and tried to counter with his own one of a kind enrichment lessons. I still remember the night he bought a bunch of Reuben sandwiches, rented “Mighty Aphrodite” by Woody Allen and explained Hanukkah to my brother and I in elementary school. He’s Irish Catholic but is cool like that.

As different as these two books are they had a common appeal for me. They both had cultures I am unfamiliar with yet fascinated by as foundations for the stories they told. Ferguson does not spend the majority of his time with other expats, he communes with the locals and he espouses a perspective on not just the national identity but a regional as well.

Chabon religious/social outlooks, mores, stereotypes, cuisine and even slang (some authentic and some created for the book) for his alternate universe. He strikes a perfect balance between imagination and reality. I highly recommend both these books. If you are in the mood for a lighter style read Ferguson’s travel accounts. Those hungering for a top-notch fiction with a heavy plot from one of modern America’s literary proteges should check out Chabon’s sleuth story.

Check back soon for the next status post concerning paper cuts and written adventures. I just finished “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz and “Fool” by Christopher Moore.