Breathless in Seoul

Now that the bitterly cold winter is finally winding to a close like a happy boa constrictor around its hapless victim’s ribcage, it’s time to heave a sigh of relief, shed the cumbersome winter threads, don your spring duds, and go out for a walk down Tree Stump Lane.

Not so fast!  If you live here in Seoul, the moment you step out your door, you may well find yourself assaulted by a sea of insidious particles in the air known as hwangsa, or “yellow dust.”  As they’ve traveled all the way here from inner Mongolia, it only makes sense to grant them a hero’s welcome as you cough your way through your day, your month, your life.

Not that hwangsa season lasts too long; in the seven years I’ve spent in this city, it’s never dragged on for more than a couple of weeks.  Usually it comes and goes, each episode lasting for only a few days.  After it rains, sometimes it’s even worse than before.  It’s especially vexing to someone like me, who’s got a boarding house of inner demons to look after and keep at bay with the cross I borrow from my wife Jina, Jesus’ right-hand woman (yes, they practice polygamy in heaven and yes, Jesus’ dad Joseph felt like a shnook for having to relinquish his bed to Jahweh for a one-night stand; I guess Jahweh changed his name from Zeus after he overthrew all the other gods and sent them south to Hades, where they each undergo their separate creative punishments to this day).

I’d been looking forward to the spring–no, that’s putting it mildly.  I’d been vociferously cursing the winter with a vehement venom not seen since my attack on the hot, humid summer.  In other words, when it comes to weather, Seoul is basically a masochist’s delight. Jina never lets up in her relentless insistence that I exercise and lose weight, and I must admit that she has a point, much as I grumble and deflect her woodpecker-like, debilitating entreaties.  It’s a workout just to have to listen to her ridiculous bullshit day after day, year after year, yada yada yada.

Anyway, I’m not one for gyms, health clubs, or whatever you call them, as the music is invariably repellent, and my vomiting skills are not refined enough to keep up with the latest trends in inexplicably popular Korean music.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  I love Korea, including the country’s people, the food, and certain aspects of the culture, but I’ve lived in various places around the world and have never, ever heard such ear-withering music.  Is it getting this bad everywhere?  It’s enough to make you consider it a benefit to go completely deaf.  

The worst are the ballads, which are the sappiest, schlockiest, most saccharine compositions and performances available to the human ear.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the sadistic U. S. soldiers and doctors who torture(d?) prisoners of war at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo, Cuba used it to torment their charges for kicks.  As British journalist and resident of Seoul Daniel Tudor (who also writes regularly about the country for The Economist) notes in his noteworthy recent book, Korea:  The Impossible Country, no Korean ballad is complete without the heartfelt squeal of “sarang-hae yo,” (meaning “I love you”), without exception crooned by some constipated, emasculated twit who knows how to make the schoolgirls (along with some grown women you’d think would know better) swoon.  In fact, I borrowed the adjective “saccharine” from Tudor; I should have reached into the mental thesaurus for another one, but I have to admit, it’s the perfect choice.

I didn’t set out to slag Korean pop music in this post, and I know there are some talented musicians out there (again, refer to Tudor, who’ll tutor you in this subject–applause by way of a groan), I-never-met-a-TV-commercial-offer-I-didn’t-like, one-hit wonder Psy (fur) notwithstanding.

Jina won’t let me do yoga at home and would probably throw a fit if I joined a yoga class.  I’d like to go hiking–there are plenty of perfectly respectable local mountains available–but I’ve come down with a respiratory infection and am practically coughing up sand-balls.  I made the mistake of going out for a walk the other day, even though the visibility was so low I might as well not have been wearing glasses, and now I’m paying the price.

My wife insists that I must have caught the cold from a proximal human culprit, but I read an article on an English-language Korean newspaper site that the yellow dust often carries germs that can even lead to pneumonia (at least it’s curable these days and I won’t have to dive into my grave earlier than planned).

I like breathing.  It’s nice when you can do it with impunity.  But these days Seoulites have to breathe selectively.  Best to invest in one of those little cotton masks surgeons wear, not that they probably do a lick of good, and further obscure the view if you wear glasses by forcing your breath to fly up in your face and cloud the lenses.

Apparently Kim Jong-un is up to his old tricks again, playing hard to get (unless your name is Dennis Rodman; now there’s a match made in heaven).  I haven’t been paying too much attention to all the hoopla in the news, as I’m inclined to agree with former U. S. ambassador to Seoul Donald Gregg, who doesn’t think Kim has any plans to nuke either of my home countries, and is just thumping his chest like the fat gorilla he is.  Gregg also thinks newly elected South Korean president Park Geun-hye (daughter of Korean strongman/dictator Park Chung-hee, who’s considered either the nation’s greatest hero for turning Korea into a global economic titan or a mass-murdering control freak, depending on whom you talk to) was ill-advised to demand that the Dear Chubby Leader (apparently he’s the one in North Korea who’s been eating all the food) relinquish his nuclear program.

And the man has a point.  Think about it:  I mean, what else have Kim and his uniformed cronies got going for them but their budding nuclear arsenal, a veritable garden of deadly phallic flowers (pardon the oxymoron)?  Once they give up those, they’ve got jack squat.  I’m as apprehensive about the guy as the next person (not that most people around here seem worried at all; life goes on, business as usual), but if you put yourself in his extra-large shoes, you can’t help but conclude that he’s got nothing to lose by playing rough.

But who knows?  Kim Jong Un could at some point in the near future get taken out by a Predator drone [and while you’re at it, why not do in Dick Cheney at the same time and get rid of two turds in one flush?  Don’t get me wrong–“I love the guy,” to quote Dennis Rodman, referring not to Richard Butt-head Cheney but to his new boyfriend Kimberly Jong-un (to paraphrase Stephen Colbert)–but I’ve never been in such an abusive relationship either, and neither has anyone else; I guess that’s what we get for falling for a robot; let’s hope some day soon he’s consumed by an epiphany that exposes to him the error of his ways, powerfully terrifying enough in its physical intensity to permanently stop his replacement heart from beating.  Better still, let’s pray he undergoes a Scrooge-like transformation and lives long enough to do a million hours of community service in the countries he’s violated over the decades–including his own–which might help begin to repair at least a little of the incalculable damage to the world and reverse the dysfunctional direction it’s taken due to his myriad Machiavellian machinations].

As Dennis Miller used to say, back when he was still funny and before he became a reactionary idiot, “Of course, that’s just my opinion.  I could be wrong” about Kim Jong-un.  If he does go for broke and unleash his ferocious forest of explosive ammunition, seventy percent of which is aimed at this country, well hell, it’s been nice knowing you.  

Turning T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase on its head:  “The world ends now, not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

If I’m “lucky” enough to survive, I’ll provide you with a fresh report on the nation-wide incineration’s effect on the city’s air quality.  I imagine that gagging and coughing should become the new national pastime for those of us who haven’t been reduced to puddles of bleeding meat.

Meanwhile, let’s have a nice weekend, shall we?




One thought on “Breathless in Seoul

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