When I first started working in China, my students laughed at my name. A day or two later, as I talked with my manager, I was told that my name had been a bit of a problem in the hiring process. “Our last teacher was called David,” he told me. “The Chinese didn’t want us to hire another one.”

I thought this more than a little strange. If my name had been “David Hitler” or “Kim Jong-David”, then it might have been a little more understandable… But even so, I couldn’t imagine why my name – surely one of the least imaginative a parent could bestow upon a child – had been jinxed by whoever came before me.

Then the stories came out, albeit slowly. My co-workers – a friendly and talkative bunch with whom I can discuss just about anything – were very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of “Crazy David”, as he was known.

I learned a few things about him that began to explain why he was so intensely disliked:

The Supergroup.  That mythical entity that carries such soaring expectations that it is remarkable that any of the bands ever make it into the studio.  It’s like the Honors Society kid who letters in three sports, dates a cheerleader, and is a top flight boxer- how can he fail, right?  Until it’s ten years later and the sheriff is tucking the eviction notice into the pocket of his work shirt while he’s passed out on the trailer floor with a needle in his arm.

What’s a Supergroup?  A gaggle of well-known musicians from different bands (and often different genres) who come together to form a new musical entity.

Just like the Honors kids, Supergroups start out with great pedigrees, lots of breaks, and doors swinging widely before them, but that doesn’t always mean that these advantages translate into something memorable.  But when they do click it can be one of the most exciting spectacles in music.

Supergroups are the embodiment of our musical fantasies come true.  “What if?” becomes reality.  This is the stuff that even casual music fans stop to ponder.  Die hard musos can come to blows over them.  Somewhere in the world right now, there is an intense, late night, cocaine-fueled debate raging about the ultimate Supergroup.

 

K-pop is inexplicably popular. I’d never heard of it before coming to Korea, but according to the frighteningly nationalistic Korean press, it’s a world sensation. All across the global, people are dancing to the startlingly derivative nonsense that is contemporary Korean “music.”

But maybe I’m being too cynical.

Maybe K-pop will conquer the globe.

In the unlikely event that these derivative “musicians” take the West by storm – and given some of the bands that have achieved stardom in the English-speaking world, that’s not hard to imagine – here’s a guide for the uninitiated. Something you can use to seem hip when the time comes, or to bag yourself a young Korean lover…

Rain

Who?

Probably the one Korean singer that you may already know, thanks to an appearance on the Colbert Report. He is known as a great dancer, and an actor.

Have Happy Day

By Slade Ham

Memoir

It was early April that year and I was excited. I was going back to Asia for the third time, to see the cherry blossoms in bloom and hop from base to base telling jokes through most of South Korea and Japan. My itinerary was complicated, and the first leg in particular left very little space for a mistake. In a perfect world I was supposed to fly from Houston to Detroit, Detroit to Tokyo, and finally from Tokyo to Busan, South Korea.

But that’s in a perfect world.

In Real Land where I live, the problems started as soon as I boarded in Texas. They waited until the cabin door was closed to inform us that there was a minor computer issue. “It should only take a few minutes to correct,” the pilot’s voice crackled out over the intercom.

A baby cried somewhere in front of me. Sweet Jesus. Already? The mother fed it a bottle and rocked it to sleep. A few minutes slowly became sixty. I had a window seat, and that window was already beginning to fog up from the lack of air circulation. It’s been an hour, I thought. It can’t take that much longer. I’m a borderline claustrophobic person by nature and being stuck in the back of a long metal tube on the inside of a row wasn’t helping. The massive woman in the aisle seat was the size of an adolescent rhinoceros so getting out and walking around was going to be a challenge. At least I’m not in the middle though, I told myself.

That seat belonged to a man in his forties who, while having said nothing to support my theory, appeared to carry himself with a holier-than-thou attitude. I immediately didn’t like him. Some people have a cocky look on their face by nature. Maybe it was the way his facial bones were structured or how his eye brows arched, but he looked like someone who thought they should have a butler. “Simmer down,” I wanted to say. “You’re back here in coach with the rest of us.”

An hour and a half.

The speaker rattled again, this time with worse news. “This is your Captain again. Umm… we’re going to try to get this computer restarted one more time… umm… and if that doesn’t work we’re going to have to bring a crew on board to replace it. Just sit tight though. It shouldn’t be much longer,” the Captain lied.

Two hours.

Time was crawling. Shit. I remembered I only had a three hour layover in Detroit before my flight to Japan. This was going to cut things way too close. I pulled my notebook out of my backpack and tried to write to distract myself. The man in the middle was starting to get nosy. He pushed his glasses up with his finger and then tried to covertly read what I was writing with his peripheral vision. A blindfolded, stillborn chimpanzee would have known what he was doing. I adjusted my writing to compensate. Flipping over to a fresh page, I started a new paragraph:

“If you don’t stop reading this I will stab you in the ear with my pen and hide your body under the large woman to your left. They will never find you, do you understand me? Yes, I am talking to you. Don’t look away now, motherfucker. And when I’m through with you, and I get off this godforsaken plane, I will hunt your children down and eat them. You read that right. I will eat your children. On bread. Like a PoBoy.”

Three hours.

My layover time had officially been chiseled away. Unless we made into in the air in five minutes I was going to miss my next flight. I took a deep breath when I heard the intercom buzz. “Captain Adams here one more time. Just wanted to update you folks on our status. It looks like they have the problem under control. We apologize for keeping you on the plane this long, but it should only be a few more minutes. Sit tight.”

“Lying cocksucker!” someone yelled from the back. We all laughed, but there was no heart in it.

The beluga whale at the end of our row wasn’t doing so well. People that size don’t like to move a lot but they don’t like to be trapped either. The armrests were not being kind to her hips in an irresistible force/immovable object sort of way. The manner in which she seemed to have gotten stuck in her seat reminded me of a video I once saw where a double-decker bus failed to make it underneath an overpass.

Three and a half hours.

All I could focus on was the fact that I had to get to Detroit. I had to. The baby was crying again, now awake from its nap. Middle Man was fidgeting uncontrollably next to me but he avoided making eye contact. The sack of mattresses next to him was snoring, though she was wide awake. Her breaths came in erratic gusts, each one sounding more laborious than the last. More crying sounds cut through the thick air. It was miserable. I hope this plane blows up, I thought to myself.

Four and a half hours.

We were all beaten. Even the flight attendants had given up any semblance of professionalism. Ties loosened and sweat dripping, they dragged a beat up water cart down the center aisle. “Just say something if you want some more water,” one of them muttered. “I can’t help you otherwise.”

Five hours.

My flight to Tokyo had now been in the air for almost two hours. “Good news,” the Captain interrupted. “We’ve resolved the problem and are cleared for takeoff.”

One hundred and seventy-nine people sighed in relief; the fat lady just kept trying to breathe, period.

*  *  *

Eventually I made it through Detroit and into Tokyo, trudging into Narita Airport around 11:30 at night. The airline informed me that while the last flight into Busan had already taken off, they would happily fly me to Seoul for the night. “We get for you hotel, and drive person will arrive to transport you,” the lady behind the counter said in broken English. “Here ticket. Go enjoy. Have happy day.”

I didn’t know that the entire country of Korea goes to bed well before midnight. I learned that fact upon arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul. Apparently they’re like Monchichis in that regard; at ten o’clock, someone takes the jewels out of their bellies and they fall asleep. The airport was huge, and totally empty. I was Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky if, too tired to run through Times Square, he had skipped directly to the screaming-at-the-sky-and-spinning-in-a-circle part. How could the airport be empty? Where was my driver? I still had to get a hold of someone in Busan and let them know that I wasn’t going to make it, but the only contact information I had was for a man mysteriously named “Mr. O”. I had that, and a phone number with a thousand digits.

What I did not have was any Korean won and the Currency Exchange had long since closed. Delirious, I stumbled down the massive hallway and tried to make sense of the logograms that surrounded me. My exhausted mind translated them based on what they appeared to be: picnic table, telephone pole, tree house. I was getting nowhere.

One lone, lethargic sentry waited by the exit near an eerily silent baggage claim. He led me to a phone and then left me alone to report my story to Mr. O’s voicemail, because Mr. O, like all of Korea, was sleeping. I had been traveling for nearly thirty hours. Where was my ride to the hotel? A voice echoed my thought even as it occurred.

“Hotel?” I heard someone say.

I was certain that I was imagining things because there was no one there. “Hotel?” the voice said again, and then a four foot tall Korean appeared from behind what had appeared to be an abandoned counter.

“Yes,” I said. “Please.” I didn’t even care if he was the right guy or not. I just wanted to stand under a hot shower and maybe take a nap.

“Come. We go fast,” he grinned.

“Yes,” I replied. “Fast is good.”

He led me to a van, threw my bag in the passenger side, and then clambered into the driver’s seat. I slid open the side door and crawled into my own seat in the back, fully prepared to doze off until we reached our destination. I heard the ignition fire up as my eyes closed, and then I snapped them back open again when Korean rap exploded from the speakers. The van tires squealed, kicking up dust, and we shot forward in the dark outskirts of Seoul at the speed of sound.

He could barely see over the steering wheel. I pulled myself forward against the G force to see how fast we were going, forgetting that the speedometer was showing kilometers. I heard some mechanical part fall off the van and I spun around to watch it disappear in the darkness. The man laughed at the sound and then sped up even more. Through the windshield I could barely make out the road ahead as it flew toward us. Among the other deficiencies, we apparently only had one headlight as well, like the Wallflowers. The tail lights of another car appeared ahead, but only for a moment. He bump drafted them, cut the wheel sharply, and whizzed past, throwing his hands in the air like Bastion on Falcor’s back in The Neverending Story. “Mansae!” he yelled.

Terrified, I moved to the center of the bench seat and put on all three seatbelts.

I crawled out of the van when we arrived at the hotel, shaking but relieved and ecstatic to still be counted amongst the living. Before I could tip the man or even thank him, he pushed my bag out after me, yelled something else in Korean, and then rocketed off into the night.

“Have happy day,” I chuckled.

I’ll never know exactly how fast we actually went. I know we covered what I estimated to be 1100 miles in about eighteen minutes, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this guy had been when I needed to get from Houston to Detroit thirty hours earlier.

 

Not long ago, on a frigid December morning in the heart of Korea, I was walking to work while in front of me an old woman pushed her cart. She looked indistinguishable from any other old Korean woman – wearing mismatched baggy floral garments, a visor in spite of the complete absence of any sunlight, a face mask to protect her from invisible germs that fly over from foreign countries, and a pair of dirty white gloves.

She was about ten paces ahead of me when it happened… All of a sudden she whipped down her baggy floral trousers and giant brown underpants and proceeded to squeeze out a massive shit on the frosty pavement, followed by a splattering, spraying, steaming puddle of piss.

I was utterly horrified, of course, and for the next two hours I taught my children upstairs in a classroom, the window of which overlooked the scene of the crime. That cabbagey behemoth stared up at me until someone was kind enough to step in it and carry it into obscurity on the bottom of their shoe.

I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.

I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.

The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.

The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.

I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.

I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.

This doesn’t help.

The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.

I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.

Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.

I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.


The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.

It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.

I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.

The verdict is inconclusive.

I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.


I think the wrong word is in inverted commas here…

If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:

“I’m saving money here, cock and I don’t care what happens to me in the process”.

I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.

The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.


I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.

I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.

It doesn’t work.

I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.

I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.

A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.

Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.

With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.

I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.

It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.


I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.