When I first came to South Korea, a little over two years ago, the international media was ablaze with predictions of doom on the peninsula. The North Korean government declared to the world that it was absolutely hellbent on turning Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

In spite of this – or, perhaps to some extent because of it – I moved all the way around the world on my own and settled in Daegu, South Korea. Immediately upon arrival, I was surprised to find that no one cared about the supposedly approaching holocaust. I asked people about it and they said it was no big deal.

Even the Korean press didn’t seem to care. What they knew, and I didn’t, was that this was old news. Rhetoric. North Korea has been declaring war for years. It’s actually a fairly successful strategy that has secured their sovereignty in spite of their awful predicament.

When you live in South Korea you are frequently woken by something called the “Doomsday Siren.” It’s an air raid alarm that sounds for several minutes at a time – usually in the morning – and is followed by a mandatory silence. Only emergency vehicles are allowed onto the streets in the following ten minutes.

 

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.

I

Around the age of twelve I moved into a big house with my family. It was on the edge of our little village, with a large garden. The house had two storeys – more than twice as many rooms as either of our previous homes, and was more than a hundred years old.

Everything about the house was ancient. It was built solidly, but it creaked. The stairs creaked, the doors creaked, the windows creaked. Sitting in the house alone, one could always hear noises.

During the next few years I frequently found myself in the house alone. I could always hear the movement of people who weren’t there. There were always noises that were impossible to identify. None of these, I believe, were ghosts, but they led my imagination astray more than a few times.

Won Bin

By David S. Wills

Humor

 

Jonathon, Thomas and I were standing outside a Family Mart at about five in the morning, amidst the humid stench of Daegu, drinking from little paper cups of soju. The bars were closing down and the clubs were emptying into the vomit-soaked streets as the sun began to rise and burn through the smog.

We were drunk and had been drinking for about nine hours, and Thomas and I had to work at nine. It was a routine that had gone on for several months. There wasn’t much else to do, and work was about as tolerable sober as it was in the grips of a killer hangover.

Suddenly I screamed as someone slapped a handcuff on my wrist. In a moment of shock I yanked my arm away, pulling the cuffs away from the person’s hands.

“What the fuck?! Is that an oompa-loompa?”

The Dog Farm

By David S. Wills

Memoir

One dark, grey and thoroughly depressing Sunday afternoon, after a heavy bout of soju-swilling in the tight confines of the apartment, Min Jung suggested we go out for lunch. I could tell she wanted to dress up and point her tits at other people. She liked flaunting her beauty, particularly at people she hated, and she hated most Korean people – especially the ones that reminded her of her parents. Sometimes she got a look in her eye that said that for whatever reason she wasn’t entirely happy but that she was feeling confident in herself, and just wanted to dress up nice and let people know that she was hot. Also, I think she liked showing people that she had a foreigner for a boyfriend – not because she was proud, necessarily, but because she liked to rebel. Probably there was no great difference in her mind between wearing a skirt that barely covered her snatch and holding my hand in public.

“What you want eat?” she asked.

“You,” I replied with a stupid grin, but she didn’t get it.

Like so many stories, it began with a drunken promise. My friend Nathan told me he’d found something. “It’s the most amazing thing in the world,” he said.

Naturally I didn’t put too much faith in those words, but I nonetheless looked forward to the day I’d become a part of the secret; the main frustration being that three people in the whole world knew about this “amazing thing” and I wasn’t one of them…

***

One warm summer night we were drinking in a blues bar. There were many familiar faces, but I found myself alone with Nathan, talking about the “amazing thing.”

“It’s a house,” he said. “An abandoned house.”

My excitement died a little. How exciting could a house possibly be? In Dundee, damn near half the buildings were derelict. “You’ve got to see it… It’s beautiful. Not just any house; a big house. Ancient. On the _____ Road, too.”

 

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.

December 25 marks a milestone at The Nervous Breakdown: the fortieth day of the existence of TNB 3.0. If the revamped site were the Ark, the dove would fly back with an olive leaf in its mouth. Or a sample from the bag of Jessica Blau’s “lemons.” Or a beanie Zoë Brock found on the side of the road in Frisco. Or…but you get the idea.

I feel like this momentous occasion should be commemorated by something other than the exchange of presents and spiked eggnog. Perhaps Megan DiLullo can organize a podcast? Or, better yet, a photo montage of TNBers dressed like Bond girls? (An editorial suggestion for Megan and Erika: next time, get the girls to wear the bikinis).

It’s been a month in which our contributors have displayed feats of tremendous bravery: David Wills swam with sharks. Matt Baldwin hiked with bear. Simon Smithson jumped off a tall building. Ben Loory stole money from Demi Moore. Don Mitchell wore tighty-whities.

J.E. Fishman is serializing his novel, Cadaver Blues. Between Cadaver and Cactus City, there’s a lot of blues going on at TNB. I hope 2010 is a happier year for everyone.

Richard Cox wrote a cool piece about the hoopla surrounded the Tiger Woods imbroglio, which—because we are above it here on this blog—somehow descended into a debate about the literary merits of Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections, it appears, refers to what Woods did to his swing a few years back.

Our Fearless Leader returned from blog post exile, and I think I speak for all of us when I say, Welcome back, Brad Listi. His piece, “You Lost Me At Hello,” was treated like the release of Chinese Democracy—top of the charts, top of the comment numbers—the only difference being that Brad’s post is good.

Someone named Darian Arky started writing for us from his redoubt in Prague. According to his dossier, he works for the State Department. How naïve do you think we are, man? I’ve read enough James Ellroy books to know that if a dude claims to work for the State Department, he’s really out there gathering intelligence, handling sources, and slipping Cold Ethyl into the Chivas of enemies of the state. I’m not sure what Arky is up to—other than contributing great pieces and leaving lots of comments on everyone else’s—but I find it curious that as soon as he shows up, Justin Benton vanishes.

Whether or not Darian Arky is an actual person, Darian Arky is a cool name. That seems to be a criterion for letting new writers on the site. Check out these new peeps: Gwenda Bond, Doreen Orion, Nathaniel Missildine, and Jeffrey Pillow all join Autumn Kindelspire, Slade Ham, and Will Entrekin in the Cool Name Hall of Fame.

(Alison Aucoin is a cool name, too, except that I have no idea how to pronounce it. Oh-KWAN? OH-cun? Oh-CYOON? Alison, please enlighten us).

The forty days have included lots of great stuff—if I neglected to mention you specifically, it’s not because I don’t like you, but because my daughter is yelling at me from downstairs to give her gum, so my attentions are diverted—but I’ve especially enjoyed the content from LitPark and 3G1B and WordHustler, as well as the fact that my kids routinely appear on View From Your Phone.

My favorite piece of the first forty days, however—other than my own self-interview, of course—is the trilogy submitted by Gina Frangello about her father. A must-read, it says here.

Happy holidays, folks. May 2010 be the year in which all your dreams come true…and the year in which we drop the idiotic “two-thousand” business and start saying “twenty-ten.”

 

I’ve always been obsessed with sharks. I think the obsession began around the same time I decided dinosaurs were the coolest thing, and when that dinosaur obsession devolved into a mere interest, and then into a closet interest after the realization that I didn’t possess the requisite science or math abilities to be a paleontologist, my love of sharks stayed strong.

To this day I never miss Shark Week. I never pass up the opportunity to look at pictures of sharks on the internet or in magazines. I read about shark attacks like others read about sports. I always see the newest shitty shark movie on TV and always hate it a little less than anyone else.

 

I’ve been to Japan a few times and have always enjoyed my time there. The people are friendly, the streets are clean, and everything is so different to what I’ve seen in Scotland or Korea.

On my first trip to Japan I went on my own, speaking not a word of Japanese and knowing nothing about Fukuoka – the city in which I would spend the following few days. That’s the way I like to travel. I like the adventure of rolling into a strange city and putting my faith in luck and chance that things will turn out alright.

I soared from Busan to Fukuoka on a high speed ferry, landing in the strange little city in the evening. When I stepped into the immigration hall I was met with a giant line of arriving passengers – all of them were Asian.

I thought nothing of that little racial quirk, given that I’d spent the previous seven months in Korea, surrounded by Korean people, rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t Korean. But there were hundreds of us in a room, lining up to go through immigration, and every single person except me was waved through.

His name was Daniel and I think he was a paedophile. Whether he was or he wasn’t, he certainly was a violent and delusional man, and his brief stint in my life was alarmingly full of coincidence and fear.

Our first encounter was on the subway in downtown Daegu. I was on my way home and I heard someone shouting, “Hey! Wait up!” and when I looked around there was a bear of a man chasing me down the platform.

His appearance was awesome. Daniel was around 6’5 and he was as wide as a bull. He was immensely hairy, too. From his face to his hands he was covered in a thick layer of red hair. He wore a giant LA Lakers shirt over a grey t-shirt, and denim shorts with hi-tops. His hair was huge and frizzy, adding another for inches to his height, and was kept back from his face by a white sweat band.

I was drunk one night after work, singing in a noraebang (Korean karaoke) with co-workers, when Robbie cornered me in the dingy little bathroom. It was awkward. I barely knew the guy, except that he was a co-worker’s boyfriend and a notorious alcoholic. He was a big solid Irish guy, and I couldn’t place his age – Thirty? Fifty? His face was wrinkled and only his bright blue eyes shone out from the mess of grey stubble.

“Your hair, David,” he said. “Your hair is shite.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean, you’re a handsome fella, in all. You look like Johnny Depp… But that hair… No… That hair has to go.”

I said that I’d been meaning to get a haircut for a while, which was true. The heat made my long hair heavy and hot.

I didn’t look at a clock or my watch all day. Time ceased to be of any consequence. But not too long after the sun had risen, and well before it hit that point in the sky that said it was midday, we set out to see what Kelly called “real Korea”. When she said those words and showed some optimism I never doubted her for a second. Usually my cynical side kicks in and I laugh silently at anyone when they grow enthusiastic about something I dislike, but I trusted her fully.

We stepped out into the cool morning under the calm sun and walked along the street holding hands. We took a bus to Dongdaegu station and then transferred and took another north towards the mountains at the top of the city. During my time in Daegu I’d merely stared at the mountains, thinking of them as walls holding me prisoner in this awful place. I’d long since stopped thinking the beauty they might have held.

We stepped off the bus among smaller, older buildings on a steep road. Old people milled about in North Face gear, marching up towards the tree line. Everyone was dressed as though they were ready to climb Everest. Kelly and I stood out in our shorts and t-shirts and sneakers. People stared at us but we didn’t care. We were both smiling, lost in each other and in the fresh air that clouded the mountain.

I used to work on an organic farm in California, living in a barn full of horses and riding tractors through fields under the warmth of a gentle fall sun. I was a Beatnik then more than now – among hippies and flower children, believing everything I was told and digging all the world in some glorious young innocence.

I was obsessed with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and with the notion of wilderness. I read too much for my own good; my head full of dreams and naïve thoughts. I’d read Into the Wild, a lot of London and some Thoreau. I was obsessed with Big Sur and becoming free of the constraints of humanity. I loved the idea of the writer disappearing into nature.

When I came upon a bicycle one day I realized that I had the chance to disappear for a while. I told my boss at the farm that I was going to wander into the wild and he laughed and said “ok” and gave me fifty bucks to prevent me from starving.

 

It surprised me when I first came to Korea and realized that Korean kids were given English names. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t they just keep their Korean name? Does an English name really make it easier for the kids to learn, or is it for the benefit of native teachers?

Of course, in the year and a half that has since elapsed, I’ve become more than used to the system of ‘education’ in Korea. I no longer question giving kids an English name, because I’m asked to do it at least once a week. However, a few more questions have since come to mind: