Thursday, July 31, 2008

Visions of Seoul IV

I'm letting my students take a break, having just completed a marathon half-hour of today's SAT Critical Reading test, with a good 50 minutes yet remaining in this afternoon section. I sit on the front-right-side of the classroom, in a curved-back chair of wood and metal situated under the wall-mounted whiteboard; staring off, doing mental calculations, auditing the figures on my upcoming pay stub.

Students chatter away to my left. A girl sits in the back toying idly with her mobile phone (a common sight in these Korean classrooms, during break as well as, more stealthily, during class time), while the boys play some sort of Korean game that involves slapping each others' forearms with two tightly-held fingers, flicking foreheads, or some other such typically Korean punitive measure.

The group of four girls sitting closest to me talks in quick, amused-sounding syllables; while I can't understand their content, the context - of high school students' relaxation - is universal. Two of them turn to me, and it registers to me that they're speaking English:
"Teacher Jason, I have a question."

Sure, go ahead. (I'm always eager to instruct)

"Do you know any of our names?"


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Prostitutes and tax collectors.

[Adapted from correspondence]

At my church this morning, our associate pastor gave a really moving (well, it moved me) sermon about...

OK. To be honest, I was not paying attention during a massive portion of the sermon, because I got like 4 hours of sleep last night during a sleepover at Adam Y-V's house (4 Christian brothers = hallelujah, a Godly confraternity!). I did gather, in between desperate attempts to at least appear attentive, that, in general, the pastor was talking about the salvific power of Christ: how He can reach anybody, regardless of where they are coming from or located at in their lives. A good topic, one with which I'm sure we are all more or less generally familiar. Good stuff, good stuff... but not really one (at least when broadly approached) likely to be provoking a lot of introspection for me (this is a sad truth, and more likely just about my own foolishness than the weightiness of the topic).

But, towards the end of the sermon, the preacher started talking about how the depths of sin from which God had saved him. He is an ex-gangster/drug dealer/adulterer/etc. He's been jailed multiple times. But the point that he kept hammering home was that God had always walked there beside him and before him (that is why we call Him a God that is previous). When he was dealing drugs, God was there with him. When he was sleeping with whoever, God was with him. When he was putting a needle in his arm for drugs, God was there with him. Kanye West might say that Jesus walks... but the truth is, He does so in such thorough ways that we got no clue.

And then the pastor drew a parallel between Jesus' always being with us (even to the end of the age) and Jesus going to be in tax collectors' houses, down to be with them after - and while - they partied. Tax collectors, prostitutes, these were basically the two sides of the "immoral" coin: few men could be more despised than a tax collector, and few women regarded as more shameful or less worthy of respect in that culture. (And of course, we could talk on and on about gender roles in 1st-century Israel/Judea and what it means and signifies that a man would become a tax collector or a woman a prostitute.)

Now, as he started talking about these people with whom Jesus associated himself, my mind started wandering again... but, this time, I think it was a Godly wandering; less a loss of focus than a purposeful redirection of it.

I began recollecting how, so often, I have held a sanitized view of Jesus. About how I intellectually assent to the fact that Jesus hung out with "bad people", but I somehow disengage those "bad people" from their "bad acts" while Jesus was with them. As though He existed in a little bubble of goodness and moral rectitude that somehow charmed the corrupt moral fibre of those around Himself into marginal and temporary sanitation.

But the thing that I realized today was... nope. Basically: the parties to which Jesus went to were not saintly affairs. Jesus hung out with tax collectors. And prostitutes. Let's run over that again:
-Tax collectors (i.e. men who, by virtue of their corruption or/and low moral standards, had a lot of money).
-And prostitutes (i.e. women who, for whatever reason, did... things... in exchange for money).

And ummm... I'm sure that those tax collectors and prostitutes were not just getting together to chill and read the news. While I'm sure that they might have felt ashamed by His presence there - or, more likely, odd and a little weirded out (all ay yo who is that dude hanging out outside talking to everybody but not coming into the party? why isnt he gettin down with the ladies; he shy or gay or somethin?) - but I'm also fairly sure that His presence didn't change all that much of their behavior, and certainly all their behaviors (Isaiah 53:3 - "He was despised, and we esteemed him not").

So this is our God. Going back to a devotional I wrote a little while back, this is our real Hosea: our Christ. He loved each and every one of those people in those parties more than anyone we have ever loved, and he was there to watch them forsake Him for cheap, quick, objectifying lustiness. And He was, so much, Loving Grace, that, instead of fleeing from the scene, unable to handle it, He remained with those people, utterly in love with them.

Can we do this?? I can still remember the dread heartache I felt this one time in high school, when I was dating some girl and she basically started falling for this other guy. I could see it coming, I could hear it on the phone; and she probably could, too. I can still recall so vividly well the sinking emptiness of love taken and rejected; or worse, a love accepted but left without reciprocation.

To use a gross term: love abused.

It's the same feeling you get (well, I do anyhow) when you see that girl (or guy, though I wouldn't know about that.... im guessing it's the same) you have a crush on, or even just sort of fancy, talking a little too closely with some other person, or coming to the party with them, or (ha ha here do I give too much away?) going back and forth avidly from facebook wall to wall with a few too many ;)'s and =)'s for comfort (yeah that was a little of a stalker-ish example. I don't actually do that, promise).

You know that feeling? That hollowness which shakes you in your very heart and to the pit of your stomach? Your very essence of being?

Now imagine Christ - Lover and Husband and Knower of every individual person - not only not avoiding that feeling (magnified by an infinity of comprehension, I'm sure), but seeking it out.

Desiring to give us grace so much that, instead of fleeing when we adulterers approach Him, instead of simply standing still and waiting for us to come to Him, loving these sinners - we prostitutes and we tax collectors - so much that He actually sought them (us!) out, even in the midst of their (our!!) very moment of consummated adultery?

That's a God I can cry out to. That the God whose grace can (and did) bring me to my knees during worship after the sermon, literally crying out for His Cross to be mine. And I hope - I think - that my tears might be the same as those of Mary Magdalene (also a woman with a sordid past... as are we all [not women. Having sordid pasts.]), which watered His sore feet.

This is the God who is seeking me out, to embrace me, as I go to Internet sites that I shouldn't go to, or talk to girls that I don't really need to be talking to, in ways that I don't really need to be talking, about things that don't really deserve discussion.
This is the God who is desiring me, when I'm obsessing over clothes, or money, or sneakers, or any of a thousand other things which could be good but are too-often idols.
This is the God who loves me when I commit adultery with the manifold succubi of my own creation;
and one day, one day soon, one day already, this is the God whose love will be so greatly and obviously revealed to me that I will finally turn back and fall in love with that God once and for all.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Visions of Seoul III

It is slightly before 9 PM on a humid Friday night.

I sit across from a young, nearly pre-teen, girl; in a slight lisp, she haltingly - but with excellent diction and articulation - explains how I am the first foreigner fluent in English to whom she has addressed herself. Her eyes are weary but sedate; her fingers remain steady, splayed against one another or toying with the strap of her bookbag.

In the style of The North Face's typeface and logo, her shirt reads:

Lions Den Pick-ups

Ayo fam, a combination of my having disposable income (even after a responsible deduction for taxes/savings/living expenses/tithe/etc. 什么的), not being around in the States to dispose of it, and not having many money sinks in Ko Rea, has led to a nice little pile of goods accumulating in avid anticipation of my arrival back home. My parents and sister have been magnanimous enough to curate my little growing collection, and this past Tuesday or Thursday a box arrived from LA... from LA's finest. All photos taken by pa dukes.

我不是共产党员. Staple Design coming through with the heat rox,
representing for all the asian fam.

I have never seen this Staple joint before, in my last few years of
growing increasingly canny regarding the streetwear industry.
That is one thing that I love about Lions Den: they hold on to old
stock. Other stores, especially those particular enough to stock the
brands that I floss with, usually sell through each season's line
before the next season comes up; or simply put stuff in the stock
room or warehouse and forget about it until the next spring
cleaning sale.
Lions Den keeps that ish out front and center.

Staple Design X Base Control polo, for the Staple 10th Anniversary

A great basic joint with some extra detailing.



Just got to make sure to keep these clean... Only drop em with
particularly fly and/or fresh kicks so as not to get them all track
marked up with the realness.

Maybe something like these:

My first shoebox with that logo. To a kick fiend, that shade of red
is like Tiffany blue to some of the ladies.
Anticipation builds....


Awh yeah. My first pair of Alifes. Full-grain leathers, generous use
of 3M materials, and a solid colorway as always.
I chose the Frog Pack Err'body High-tops over pretty much every
other model in the Alife stable as my first pick-up from them, for
several reasons:
1) Most other models heavily utilize patent leather, a meterial that
I respect for its shine but dislike for its tendency to wear in very
obvious ways (largely due to the fact that it's so obvious when
something very shiny wears down).
2) This joint has the legendary ALIFE logo, but it's subtler than
some of their other joints.
3) It is a rule of thumb for me to generally avoid stand shoes that
are all-white or have light mid-/cupsoles. New Haven is a grimy
city and I am a relatively messy dude, so clean white kicks quickly
become dirty off-white beaters. The colorway on these joints should
render them impervious to all but the most insistent scratches, dirt,
beatings, etc.

Post-game debrief: I've yet again been immensely impressed by Raymond Tseng and the Lions Den crew. After extensive communication back-and-forth via email (which made me feel as though I were in-store and not at all a second-class customer from some distant locale), I ordered these items over Paypal last Friday, and they processed, packed, and shipped them within a day; and by the following Thursday it had arrived. Less than a week from purchase to delivery is incredible professionalism. Big ups to my asian fam, doin it right.

Friday, July 25, 2008

What's good? (temporary space-filler)

Man. Mad lots of happenings what did come up throughout this week. Lots to be thankful for, and quite a bit that I probably ought to ponder before letting it out to air dry. Highlights (i.e. list of potential blog posts, musings, and just a general sketch of an update for yall):

1) My estimated salary this summer is far higher than I had thought it might be - nearly 2 to 2.5 times what I had originally estimated, in fact (This seems rather obnoxious and self-congratulatory, but does it help if I say that, yes, as tempting as it is to be self-aggrandizing, I have been forced to realize that this is ultimately - and immediately - attributable to God, and to be used for Him?). What does this mean about me? How am I going to respond responsibly - especially considering that I am the dude who has never had more than a few hundred to his name?

2) A short piece I wrote up about my experiences in Beijing/北京 and about the Olympics/奥运会 might wind up - in print and online - in the New York Times (i.e. the stringer said yes and asked for a bio, now I just wait to see if/when it pops up).

3) The items I ordered from Lions Den's massive moving sale got to my parents' house! Commemorative drop with pictures to follow.

4) Donations for my ministry internship hit 72%, with about 3 weeks left to go before my deadline. Go providence.

5) A friend just mentioned to me - and it gave me pause for thought - that, upon perusing my blog and hearing/seeing what I've been up to, he got the impression that (1) I get around the world a good deal (I'd like to think so, in any case), but (2) I never seem to be in the role of a tourist; something to the effect that I always seem to have a reason for where I go and what I do. This made me think: for one, purposefulness is a pretty great feeling. And second, upon further reflection, I realized that I have a fairly deep dislike of playing the role of tourist. The idea of passively partaking in something that, by definition, I am not a part of, has never really interested me: I've been overseas six times in the last four years, not to mention several trips around the States, but never once as a pure tourist. In fact, I can't recall any single incident of my hearing of some place or country and subsequently thinking "hey, other people have enjoyed it; so I ought to go. Perhaps I might, as well". This might be interesting to further explore: a philosophy of travel/tourism.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Louis this, Gucci that: thoughts on aspirational consumerism in Seoul

[Disclaimer: this is written with the full knowledge that its very author may also be implicated as complicit in abetting and supporting the behavior critiqued within. See explanation below.]

The very first time I jumped on the subway from Ju-Yeop into Seoul, I was unprepared for the veritable flood of luxury items with which I was confronted. As, frankly, a confessed brand monitor, if not outright follower, I had thought that my trips around SoHo and Broadway/5th Avenue (not to mention, 4 undergraduate years at a ridiculously wealthy school) had inoculated me against the vast human drive to consume.

Not so, apparently. Over the course of my first trip into Seoul - not to mention subsequent jaunts around town - I am nigh-certain that I saw more Louis Vuitton monogrammata than in the preceding 22 years of my modestly accomplished (if overly self-congratulatory) life. My current estimation grants something like 1 in every 7 or 8 women (and 1 in every 15-20 men) on the subway/street in my corner of Korea (including in church, in the mall, on the bus, etc.) an aspirationally branded carryall, purse, or other sort of bag; not to mention the belts, wallets, etc. and the like which parade themselves in front of me on a weekly basis.

Aspirational brands? I hope not, for - if so - these Ko Rean citizens sleep fitfully and dreamlessly.

Far be it from me to criticize a foreign culture (I say as I prepare to plunge into exactly such a piece of critical work), and I do hold out hope that this one niche impression in a sole field of Ko Rean life is merely some quixotic quirk of the cultural milieu, but this overabundance of luxury goods has inculcated in me an instinctive reaction to the very hint of a Prada nameplate, the Gucci interlocked G's, or the brown/tan patchwork of a Louis bag: to wit, I have begun loathing the trappings of conspicuous consumption.

Actually and honestly loathing: my reaction has taken on a visceral note; I nearly (and occasionally literally) cringe at the sight of another overexposed high-fashion brand, and have been (thankfully, not often, and only, I pray, in exaggerated rhetorical jest) struck by the desire to bear down on the next bearer of such an item, wielding vengeance in my own fist.

Of course, this is an odd confession from an avowed fan of, well, consumption. Let's be blunt here. I am straight up a purchaser: I will subsist on $5 a day but then drop $40-80 on a pair of shoes like it is not even a thing. And perhaps, in some indirect way, this is an indictment of my own habits.

But I think there are some distinguishing features of this particular obsession which particularly sadden me, in ways that (I hope) my own spending patterns remain innocuous (though it still provokes thought). Mainly, my arguments fall into two categories: (1) that such an obsession, if not the actual physical ubiquitousness of such items, is a sad reflection on the status of popular culture and spending trends, and (2-4) that such acquisition is actually statistically self-defeating.

1) Statistics: either Koreans are madd rich, or people are far over-reaching their means.
The prevalence of Louis Vuitton bags is such that either 12-18% of the population in Seoul (at least, that part of the population within my sampled demographic) is wealthy enough to spend multiple thousands of dollars (that is, multiple millions of Korean Won) on a single cosmetic item; or what I consider the more likely scenario (and again, it is a presumption on my part that Seoul does not have precisely such a well-earning population), that a large percentage of the population considers the status of owning a Louis bag (what status is this? see below) to grant sufficient utility such that it outweighs the additional work required (or benefits sacrificed) to earn the extra few thousand dollars to purchase the item.

2) Removing the "luxury" from "luxury brand".
All the brands whose prevalence has been increasingly obnoxious to me are brands whose hallmark is that they are, definitionally, aspirational: that is, to own such an item from such a brand ought to be something to which one aspires, and then, in a culminating moment, in the apex of one's consumerism, attains. The permeation of such items into Korean society cheapens this aspirational aspect: if everyone has a Prada bag or a Louis belt or a Gucci wallet, then acquisition becomes no longer joyful. It is, in some perverted sense, mandatory.

3) "A little Louis better than no Louis at all"... nah.
The items which I have been seeing have, as a general rule (with several exceptions), been smaller-ticket items. A small belt, a small wallet, the smaller-sized (and more simply designed) purse or carryall. This is one of the points which seems self-defeating to me: the very idea of an aspirational luxury item is that it serves as an ostentatious display of wealth. LV and other aspirational brands produce small lower-price-range items for two reasons: (i) to provide corollary goods for those high-rollers wealthy enough to purchase the large-ticket items (i.e. you get the LV backpack... and you get the belt to match. You get the Gucci kicks, or windbreaker, and the wallet to match) and (ii) to cajole those without the financial werewithal to purchase the more expensive items into spending their money on secondary items. A preponderance of small-ticket items without a large-ticket item conveys a sense that the wearer/bearer falls into (ii): someone without the means to purchase a more expensive brand item, who wants, but cannot and does not actually have, the status associated with said brand. This is the epitome of ironic self-defeat: in purchasing and bearing supposed luxury goods, the consumer actually expresses their lack of economic status.

4) "Youse all biters!" (Beat Street); swagger jacking.
Stylistically, this seems self-defeating as well (a bone which I have to pick with much of Korean society at large... but I don't want to get too aggy on 'em at this moment yet [Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em!]). The very essence of a luxury good lies in connoting to others the sense of classic style and coolness: that the {w,b}earer is sufficiently entitled such that they can afford time and money on something which is stylish, functional, and blings hella bread. By cheapening the idea of a stylistic luxury item to the level of a common accessory, the idea of good taste flies out the window: if you wear a Louis item like a nouveau riche, it is not serving to lend you an air of class; you are lending it an air of banality.

What does it all mean?
So, then, why do so many desire the status conveyed by these items? What do these items say about an individual, if anything?
As I touched on in (1) and (2), above, the status of carrying such an item cannot be that one is wealthy: the prevalence of such items likely (I suspect) implies that owning an aspirational item does not necessitate the purchaser's entrance into a particular social class. Rather, it only implies that one values such an item as greater than the utility of other goods, services, and benefits which could be purchased for an equal amount of money (which is a troubling realization, in general, regarding aspirational items, especially when compared against the cost of, say, feeding or educating children, widows, etc., in much of the third world... but more acceptable, for various reasons which I may later articulate, for those with immense disposable incomes; less so, perhaps, for those without).
Also fairly obvious (again: highly subjective words) is that the value of such items does not lie in their ability to serve as accoutrements to a certain style or fashion of attire. I have seen luxury items acting in blatant counterpoint to the dress of the person carrying them: in fact, such a use of said items seems purposeful, highlighting flamboyant wealth through stark juxtaposition. It's tacky and tasteless: worse than meaningless, it points out a deficiency of fashion sense and style.
So, it seems, this is the purpose of such items: the brusque display of gross wealth.
But again: isn't this simply the purview of the nouveau-riche? Or the rustic fakir, making pretense of wealth but spending grotesque quantities of money in the wrong places: the entry-level BMW with the baller status rims.

I submit, then, that this is the sad state of affairs: aspirational brands, due to overexposure in popular society (along with a lack of imagination and comprehension of the source of such brands' popularity), have transformed from status symbol to sign of misappropriated and likely misused funds.

Corollary I - Fakes, and the negligible effects thereof:
Of course, it has come (and been brought) to my attention: such items may be, in large part, fakes. A sham, a gilded brass ring.

But does this change my argument in the slightest? Not at all. In fact, it only advances my argument that aspirational brands' function as status symbol has been surplanted by their status as emblem of a tragic lack of sartorial imagination and farcical aspersion to wealth, for reasons that ought to be fairly obvious.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Melody Visits (Day 3)


Last day of Mel's visit. So what did we do?

Go to church. Of course.

Stretching on the subway.
Angle, framing: fantastic, as always.
Focus: out of.

Many, many stripes that day. None, I will have you
note, run parallel with one another.

If the lions come, they will be confused and give up
trying to pursue me. Ha!

21 lacoste
This ad intrigues me:
Females - cold
Males - odd and ludicrously overposed (bonus: imagine Ludacris in
any of these poses).
Colors: a full palette on display.

I suspect that this ad represents a particular ideology of modeling:
display, and do not make any crude advances of sale, with the
premise being that the item shall sell itself.

The board conveys to me a sense that Lacoste is comfortable with its
level of brand recognition and aspirational status in this country ;
compare this bulletin with other conventional ads, whose models
appear warmer, even indulgent.

In such ads, it seems as though brand identity is such that the
viewer is assumed to need prompting to accept the desirability of
some product or its distinctive name. In such cases, the role of the
model is to evoke in the audience a sense of identification with.

Here, on the other hand, the role of model seems to run parallel to
that of the mannequins, oddly denuded of all verisimilitudinous
plastic genitalia, which model lingerie in the numerous stores
hawking such fripperies in the Korean subway stations: that is, to
present and, having bestowed such upon the viewer, to fade away
without protest.

After church, we came back home and went for a run out near Lake




52 1


53 1 sunset

53 2
I'm fairly certain that we weren't supposed to walk across this.

53 monster a
Mel comments: "this photo needs something. like a giant rampaging
monster. or a mushroom cloud."

53 monster b
Wish heard, wish granted.


54 1

54 2
A vantage point.

The sun setting, we wound our way back across the
park to Ilsan's famous (so I am told) Singing
The lilies of the field.


Little homey was straight up mountaineering. We cheered him on.

Waiting for the sun to set and the show to go on.

Melody is puzzled; by a puzzle, no less.

59 1
Red, white, and blue: I have lost my tan.

59 2
A study in juxtaposition: non-photogenicity and his counterpart.

Even at my best, I only muster up the merest hint of bemusement.

59 fountain
Singing Fountains: Winamp/iTunes/Windows Media Player
visualizations take form, Fantasia-like. We heard "Pirates of the
Caribbean" as well as, um, Celine Dion. Also things in-between.

After finishing up at Lake Park, we headed out for one last (coerced)
meal before turning in for Melody's 6 AM bus to the airport.
Tonkatsu and some type of bulgolgi (beef).


61 1
I wear those Hanes t-shirts a lot. Good thing I
found like 7 of them blue-binning this May.

61 2
She complained, pre-visit, that we don't have any pictures together.


Happy now??
Plenty of pictures.

(my thumb covered the flash.)


6 AM bus stop. Good-bye.

Visions of Seoul II

As I rode the subway from Hongdae, where I collected my recently-stamped passport, to Gangnam, the site of Sandi and my scheduled rendezvous, a young mother and her daughter walked onto the middle of my already-crowded car, child clinging to her mother's hem.

I'd previously been noticing the man next to me reading his Bible, thumbing through Judges - somewhere around chapter 11 or 12. He noticed the young girl standing in front of him and I felt him prepare to rise; I followed suit, so as to enable her mother to sit beside her.

However, upon rising, I glimpsed peripherally a well-dressed middle-aged women, who had been standing to my right, cut in behind me. From my standing vantage point, I watched her dig through her Louis Vuitton carryall and pull out a yellow-covered book, beginning to read. I peeked at the exposed page of her book: a Korean Bible. The mother stood in front of her sitting child as the car gradually filled up with teenagers, salarymen, and mothers.

My stop drawing near, I took a place near the door, anticipating our arrival. The same well-dressed woman pushed her way through the other travelers waiting to disembark, Louis bag swinging coolly from the crook of her arm. As the doors parted, mutely servile, she strutted out. High heels clacked rhythmically against the wet marble of the subway station as the woman cut her way through the crowd, where I lost sight of her.

Melody Visits (Day 2)


Got up early Saturday morning, went into school to
teach two classes, then headed with Melody to
Hongdae, the site of Hongik University, to drop off
my passport for a Chinese visa (recounted here).

Graffiti in a Hongdae alley.


11 1
Bibimbap for lunch. Mel made me eat. Again.



13 30
好吧 => Ho Bar.


14 31
Street art. Hongdae is a rather artsy, liberal area for Korea, which I
speculate is in great part due to the presence of the University in the
town. As such, there is art scattered throughout the area on walls,
the ground, etc.


15 32
No Mrs. Pizza... Yet.



17 1
A group of three young boys toting their guitars got on the subway
back to Ilsan with us. Utterly weary, they murmured softly to one
another, slumping with exhaustion.

17 2
1000KRW for a waffle sandwich.

17 3
With butter and apple butter.

Outside the supermarket. I bought an ice cream,
several snacks, and some soda.

Mel bought fruit, utensils, and a bowl.

18 1pear
Giant Asian pear X Melody

18 36
Giant Asian pear X me.

There is an area near my house whose neon flirts with
the ostentatious even during the day. Composed of two
shopping centers - LaFesta and Western Dome - it quite
boldly defies the night.

Of course I took Mel there.



More enforced eating at a Japanese restaurant.



[No explanation needed]
[or possible]

Best slogan ever. One day, when I have the nerve,
my blog will be called More meat Better Taste

I took this one of the Colonel, and was inordinately proud of my eye
for angles as well as his jaunty air of respiratory rebellion (or, I
suppose, conformity, in Ko Rea).

Lights over crowds.

Sign as enigma:
-Is it an O BAR or O girl?
-What is under the ????? ?
-OK? OK what?

50 hanbok
On the way home.

Mel if you buy and wear one of these I will fly you back out.