Survival’s a Pain in the Ass

What do you need to survive?  The basics are fairly obvious:  food, sex, shelter, some connection to what passes for nature these days, however tenuous, and the company of friends, loved ones, or people you feel you have something in common with, in whatever format is available–direct contact being the preferred method, of course, but other means can comprise a semi-reasonable substitute for some of us, whether they’re in the form of recorded music, dog-eared paperbacks, text messages, email, or social networking sites like zeece one heeya.  I’m grateful that today the technology exists for me to be able to communicate with my parents for free from afar and even see their faces at the time, saddened though I am that circumstances have, through my own painful choices, drawn us apart in the literal sense.

I hope I can stick around long enough to say goodbye to them, much as I would prefer to say hello again instead.

The problem for so many of us today is that we have to devote so much time to making ends meet, getting an education, feeding ourselves, humoring our dogged sexual appetites, juggling the ever-growing array of artificial needs generated by our spiritually anemic excuse for a global culture (a euphemism for endless consumerism and the guaranteed wholesale contamination of the planet, especially the ocean), that we don’t have time to just fucking be.  Being is out of style.  Especially if you live in the big, big sitay–as Taj Mahal would say in his immortal ditty, “Annie’s Lover.” (To wit:  “All he did know about was the pigs and the chickens and the geese and the goats and the cows and the horses and the blue skies and the water and the ducks they fly.  He sat on a hillside, playing his guitar, watching the whole thing come down in harmony.”).

And even more especially if you live here in Korea, where people hardly even have time to wipe their asses after they poop.  But that’s not exactly true.  In fact, after seven years of blinkered ingestion of the prevailing stereotype that every single Korean on southern half of the peninsula is a non-stop, gung ho workaholic, I’ve finally observed that a lot of them are just as lazy as anyone else.  They just know how to keep up appearances.  It’s a point of pride of a lot of Korean office workers that they work long hours, but many of them abide by Woody Allen’s edict:  “Showing up is 80% of life.”  (The other 20% is reserved for masturbation.)  This revelation has been disappointing yet bracing; it means I have to be less accommodating of my students sometimes, as they know how to manipulate me to do their bidding, since I’m no good at being a disciplinarian.  

(Besides, since when are teachers supposed to discipline adults?  Isn’t that condescending?  By insisting on shirking, some of my adult students seem to be inviting me to treat them like children, which seems masochistic, unless they’re convinced I don’t have it in me to be a hard-ass.  We’ll see about that.  Then again, since I may be dead soon, it’s kind of hard to give a damn about such petty matters anymore.  Jesus said to let people walk all over you while he was walking on the water; had he done it himself, I guess that would have made him a human surfboard.)

A lot of it boils down to not wanting them to dislike me, but this approach tends to backfire as my spineless attempts to ingratiate myself end up making them not respect me and try to take advantage of my by turns uptight and easygoing nature instead.  It’s a tad maddening, especially since they seem to enjoy collectively taking the opportunity to stab me in the back at the end of the month when they write their evaluations of my performance (though the word “write” may be an overstatement, since it’s more a matter of putting check marks in boxes, a far more efficient means of determining the fate of someone’s career).

The irony is that I don’t think they’re being disingenuous when they’re polite and friendly in class (although I could be wrong about that), but I do think they’re just as spineless and unable to stand on their own two feet as I am, only for a different reason–that they’re addicted to groupthink.  Again, I could be wrong about that too, considering the culture appears to be moving in a more individualistic direction, if by individualism you mean publicly isolating yourself by burying your brain in second-hand sensations provided through earphones and twinkling self-centered screens, or else by quacking at someone not physically present through your exclusive microphone for VIPs (Vampires Impersonating Presidents?).  

As in the West, here they appear to have mistaken solipsism for individuality–hence the ever-growing popularity of the motorcar, not only here but in China and India, along with just about everywhere else, much to the atmosphere’s dismay.

One of my students a couple of months ago (and forgive me if I already mentioned this in an earlier post) was brave enough to admit that a lot of Koreans were xenophobic, and that was one of the reasons I sometimes had to shoehorn a reply out of the class when I entered the room and asked, “How are you?”  He added that they were generally comfortable with me, but that if they saw a foreigner on the street, they might avoid him.

I wish I’d asked him why.  When I broached the subject to my wife Jina, she said it’s because Koreans are nervous that their English isn’t good enough to put to the test with us natives.  A Korean friend of mine told me that one reason that few Korean students will volunteer to make a selection of activities if their English teacher offers them one is not because they’re terrified of the stinking hairy beast sweating and grunting noisily before them, but because they don’t want to piss off their classmates by choosing the wrong thing.

In Japanese there’s a proverb that translates to “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”  This saying has more than one implication:  it evinces the power of peer pressure in Japanese society (hey, if you’re going to be a show-off, we’ll shun you), but also means that from the boss or teacher’s point of view you’ve got to stay in your place.  In other words, don’t be so uppity by trying to stand out and be the individual you’re not allowed to be.  

Not to sound too mealy-mouthed, but what I said about peer pressure in Japan could actually be erroneous; I have a friend who’s lived there for nearly twenty years, so I’ll ask him what he thinks and let you know later, okay?  But it’s definitely true here in Korea, and the two countries have an alarming number of similarities (granted, as a Westerner and permanent outsider I’m biases, but I have heard confirmation on that point from Korean students who’ve lived in both countries). 

Back to what I said before about being.  When you realize more vividly and viscerally through the alarms that start going off in your body during the sickening transfiguration of middle age the pending inevitability of not being, you tend to grow philosophical in a big way, and in a hurry.  (As if I weren’t already philosophical enough to begin with!  Talk is cheap, eh?)  Canadian artist Jenny Holzer (sp?) says you should listen when your body speaks to you.  True enough.  Last night after work, while I was on my way to buy a vegetarian enchilada for dinner to make up for all the carnage served at the cafeteria where I’m forced to eat lunch every day due to time constraints and the lack of other available options in the vicinity, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the left side of my chest.  It felt as if Cupid had pulled a John Hinckley on me.  (I hope I don’t live long enough to compare myself to Ronald Reagan ever again, although as awful as he was, at least he had the sense to put a dent in my country’s monomaniacal nuclear ambitions.)

When I mentioned it to Jina at a cafe a few hours later, she pressed the left side of my thorax and asked me if it hurt.  I told her it did, and she said maybe I had a broken rib, since the pain was not in the same department as the heart.  I didn’t want to alarm her by saying my days or maybe even hours are possibly numbered in the single digits, mainly because I knew she’d overreact.  It’s also not the best idea in town to conjure such a ghoulish self-fulfilling prophecy.  Still, it’s not good to be too cavalier either when you’re pushing fifty and out of shape.  I’m going to see my old doctor today, and the guy even has the decency to speak English, for Christ’s sake (luckily, I don’t think he goes in for that J. C.-related nonsense).

As this entry has already gone on longer than I’d intended for it to, I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to tell you about two dreams I had the other day that I afterwards gleaned some valuable insight from.  These were not premonitions like the dreams I mentioned to you the other day, but wake-up calls of a different kind.

May your weekend groove to the max and achieve mellow heights of super-swell, peachy-keen, boss-a-go-go, wicked pissa awesomeness (I hope I incorporated a wide enough range of slang expressions to appeal to members of every generation; that would be just brilliant, mate).

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