Queer in Korea: A review of Pride and Pulse 2016

It’s taken me a long time to put this post together. The events I’m talking about happened 3 weeks ago which is a lifetime in social media terms. And yet, I feel like for once, it’s good that it took so long. I feel like it gave me and others time to absorb and process, but I don’t think any amount of time will cause this to stop being relevant until civil rights and gun-violence are solved. In the first week after the events, I was riding the emotional roller-coaster and nothing I wrote was worth reading. In the second week, I settled down to some serious writing, but before I could publish, the third week brought me low with that child-borne plague — the common cold. It’s finally done, however. It’s much longer than my usual posts because I just couldn’t bring myself to break this experience up into smaller pieces. I do hope you’ll give it the extra time and read all the way to the end. There’s a love “crust” down there waiting for you… like with pie.


20160611_153315When I first found out about the festival in March, I was excited to see it. When I found out it was the 17th annual one, I was blown away. Try as I might to keep up with real news and world events, I still had a solid perception that LGBTQ+ rights platforms were the domain of the West (and that America might actually be the farthest behind in that race) while the rest of the world lagged far behind in tackling this important civil rights issue. I saw things like Russia banning LGBTQ+ at the Olympics and China striking down gay marriage as signs that the East just wasn’t doing that much.

And, to a certain extent, the East still has a long way to go. These are cultures that haven’t had to deal with the different and the other that often in their history. Or, when they have, they’ve dealt with it by employing the classical Asian two-level system: above-what is acknowledged, seen and talked about; below- what everyone knows is really going on but never vocalizes. It’s a kind of national “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on all kinds of things from gambling and drugs, to porn and alternate sexuality. The Japanese actually have words for this (“honne” and “tatemae”), but I’ve witnessed it in other Asian cultures as well.

SKOREA-SOCIETY-HOMOSEXUALITYKorea just recently had, for the first time, two (famous) men petition the courts for legal marriage. The case was rejected, but there was some room in the language for future laws to be added to the books that would allow it. Considering it was the very first time that anyone in Korea tried, it’s not really a surprise that it was struck down. But it’s definitely becoming more and more of a public issue, thanks in no small part to a 17 year tradition of publicly celebrating LGBTQ+ pride in the nation’s capital every summer.

cd3e37ae-b9b1-4636-be4a-2ad4c07750b0_mw1024_s_nPrevious years’ festivals have seen large groups of protesters who have screamed at, spat at, taken pictures of, and occasionally engaged in greater displays of violence and harassment toward the festival goers. They’ve reportedly lay in the street to block the march, and even engaged in physical violence against the police to try to get at the Pride participants. Protesters have tried to shut out Pride by booking up the space, nearby spaces, and hotels to keep people out. This year, the conservative anti-gay Christians tried to petition the courts to shut down the festival on the basis of public indecency, but they were denied. However the Korean culture may feel about LGBTQ+ currently, at least the government respects everyone’s right to peaceful assembly, which is awesome. More than merely respecting it, the government issued stern warnings to the protesters to refrain from violence, because violent protests are illegal.

I’m from Seattle, where being LGBTQ+ is more often the assumed state than being straight. Where it’s so normal for people to see gay couples in public that my BFF was often mistaken for my GF, and *not* in the “you’re going to hell” way that happened to me in Memphis. Pride in places like Seattle is no longer a civil rights issue (plenty of places in the US it is, keep marching guys). In Seattle, Pride is one big party with corporate sponsorship. It’s a fun party, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a civil rights movement, it’s a victory celebration. And worse, because of the division within the LGBTQ+ community, the G (and to a lesser extent the L) tend to drown out the BTQ+. The people who still need protection and help even in a culture like Seattle are the ones being most ignored by their own supposed community.

Because of all of this and more, I was very excited to see what a Pride festival would look like in a country where LGBTQ+ is legal but not common or (to most people here) socially acceptable. I knew it could get ugly because I’d read about the protesters in previous years. I knew it might be small and underfunded because it doesn’t get a lot of support here. I knew it might be full of foreigners who just wanted to bring their own culture into Korea. I knew it might just be a marketplace full of cheap souvenirs and magkoli stands because it was a festival in Korea. But I didn’t care, I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did because it was none of those things.

(Ok, one magkoli stand.)

Getting There

subway_mapMy Busan Bestie and I headed to Seoul Friday after work, arriving after midnight and experiencing the very beginning of the Seoul public transportation headache. We managed to find the right bus, but missed our stop and got stuck on the wrong side of the bridge, which I guess technically people walk across, but it was the middle of the night and we had luggage, so we thought, oh hey, we’ll just take a taxi… nope. Scarcely any to be had and none for us. We finally found another bus and got back on the right side of the bridge but didn’t make it to our hotel for almost 2 hours after our train arrived. Why didn’t we take a taxi from the train station? Well, the line for real taxis was 30 people deep and no taxis were coming, the bus ride was only supposed to be 30 minutes, and as we found out later, there are plenty of fake-out taxis waiting to charge you an arm and a leg for a 15 minute drive.

The hostel was nice. I’d sent them a note after the Taean pension disaster to let them know we would be arriving quite late, so they left me a note on the whiteboard telling my my room, and they left the key in the door as well so we didn’t have any trouble getting into the room. I’m torn about this hostel, because they did nice stuff like that, and they helped drive another patron to a place he could catch the airport bus, but they had some advertising issues that could have been handled better, like “air conditioning” which was only central and kept at an uncomfortably warm temperature, and “continental breakfast” which was cook your own eggs and toast in the rooftop kitchen. I think I could have been ok with these things had I not been expecting something else, so it’s hard to say.

Due to the lack of AC, I didn’t sleep especially well, but my excitement woke me up well enough and after a leisurely breakfast that I cooked myself, we headed back out into the city to find City Hall and Seoul Plaza, the site of the Festival.

I have been entirely spoiled by Busan public transportation. I was a little frustrated when I first arrived in Korea that Google Maps didn’t really work here, but I learned how to use the local version (Naver Maps) and have had an easy time getting to most places. For some reason, I thought that the transportation in Seoul would be better than it is in Busan. I’m not sure why. I’ve used the Beijing and Tokyo subway/train systems and so I’m not a novice at complex rail maps. I looked up the plaza on my app and saw it was a short two trains away and we were right next to the station. Lies.

We managed to get on our first train with minimal fuss, our national transportation cards work everywhere (which is so nice). But in trying to transfer to the second train, we somehow wound up going the wrong way. Then waiting at a platform where no train was coming (no signs about this either), then waiting at a platform where trains only arrived to, but didn’t depart from, then finally getting on a train heading the right way, only to find out we had to get off it and move to another train to continue going the right way. I wanted to take the train instead of a bus because train stops are usually well announced in advance while the buses tend to be a mystery and you might not know it was your stop until it’s too late. Buses are great if you know where you want to get off, but subway/train things tend to be easier for the first time traveler. Plus, the directions on the festival website explicitly said to use the metro exit 6 to get into the festival because access was being controlled to keep out the protesters.

Maybe it’s a great train system once you get to learn its idiosyncrasies. But considering the dearth of taxis and the intensely confusing blend of intra/inter city trains and subways, I’m going to say Seoul is definitely a bus town.

Safety First

20160611_154429When we finally emerged from the station, we were greeted by a huge wall of police. I saw the protesters well before I saw the festival. They were set up across the street with a giant stage where they were having speeches, performances, and blasting Christian music in an attempt to drown out the Pride music. The streets around Seoul Plaza were lined with police standing shoulder to shoulder. When the light changed, they parted to allow us access to the crosswalk by which we entered the park. I have to admit, I was becoming anxious, and not in a good way. My heart was aflutter and my adrenaline was definitely going. I’m in no way anti-police. My sister is a police officer, and I have a lot of respect for the men and women who do a necessary and often thankless job. In the US, if I get pulled over or approached by an officer in public, it does not make me nervous. But something about seeing thousands of officers creating a human wall made me more than a little twitchy.

Later, I realized that the police were there to protect us. They recognized the protesters as the threat, not the LGBTQ+ folks. They were keeping an eye on them, and were nothing but courteous to us. It was an amazing feeling. I expect many of the officers did not personally approve of the festival or the LGBTQ+ lifestyle, but they didn’t let it show in their faces that day. They stood around us through rain and scorching sun with no tents to shelter them. They stood facing the protesters so we didn’t have to. During the march, they ran ahead of us to maintain that protection at all times, which was good because protesters followed us too. By the end of the day, I just wanted to give them all hugs and say thank you, because they did so much to make the day possible, whether they agreed with it or not. This is what it means to do your job well and to respect the freedoms of others. Without them, the protesters surely would have entered and berated us up close, ruining what was otherwise a beautiful occasion. Because they were there, festival goers and marchers felt safe to be themselves in a city where that can often be so hard.

20160611_132528Speaking of being free to be themselves, the festival also went out of it’s way to make the space especially safe. In the past, protesters used pictures of festival goers to publicly shame them, or get them fired, or even disowned by family. It’s no laughing matter to be Out here. Homosexuality can’t get you arrested, but there are no laws protecting employment yet. Many families feel it’s shameful and will disown children who come out. LGBTQ+ Koreans mostly have to pretend to be cis-het to get by. A few have managed to make enough money that they aren’t afraid to come out, like the filmmaker who petitioned for a marriage to his lover, like the small community of drag queens that simply make their living as performers. But the average person is hiding. This festival is a chance to be among people who accept and understand, but the attendees probably have to go back to homes and offices where they have to pretend again, and thus, having their pictures plastered on the internet can be scary and damaging.

me and press passThe festival made it clear that anyone taking pictures for anything other than strictly personal use (eg, keep it on your phone and never show it to anyone) must get a press pass and sign the agreement. I like sharing my pictures, so my first stop upon entering the park was to the press booth. I read a multi page contract that stated the rules for taking and sharing photos. It was heavy on permission. (yay consent!), and very strict about not posting anyone’s face you didn’t get permission from. I asked people all day, and handed out cards to the site so they really understood where the image was going. They also collected our IDs, so they can hold us accountable should someone take issue with my following the rules. I told my school where I was going that weekend because I don’t like lying, so I personally am not worried about it ‘getting back’ to my employer, but I know it’s a real issue for many Koreans and I’m glad the festival took such pains to protect them.

Maybe it’s just me (doubt it), but when I see the US paying lip service to equal rights then doing less than nothing to protect endangered minorities (people targeted for violence, discrimination, etc), it makes it really hard for me to accept that whole “land of the free” shtick. I sure as Sherlock wasn’t pleased about the protesters, but everyone there respected their right to peacefully speak their piece. Not everyone in the government involved in protecting the rights (assembly, speech) and safety of the LGBTQ+s like it as a lifestyle, but they respect us as people. It was more important to maintain the core values of respect, safety, and peaceful assembly than it was for them to express their personal opinions on the subject. America, please take notes.

The Festivities

Seoul Plaza is this big oval lawn in front of city hall. ec849cec9ab8eab491ec9ea5_eca084eab2bd

On the day we arrived, it did not look like that. It looked more like this.

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This photo is from 2015, however, so imagine it with 20,000 more people. The main stage is just off the lower right corner and the protesters are on both the left and right on the other side of the street.

20160611_171806After securing our press passes and verifying our reservations for the after party, we slowly started to explore the booths that lined the plaza. Unlike events in the US, there was very little corporate representation. And unlike events in Korea, there was a lot more than endlessly repetitive booths of food and trinkets. Most of the booths were operated by groups trying to raise awareness and understanding for some aspect of the LGBTQ+ community. There was a group called “Dignity for Soldiers”, another booth was from the first (and only) NPO that does outreach and support for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth in Korea. There were booths for just about every shade of the rainbow including Trans, Poly, Pan, Ace, Bi, BDSM… I think maybe the only sexual type not represented were Furries. But it’s ok, I found one in the parade later on.

There were also plenty of booths promoting general sexual awareness through sex toys, masturbation tools and positive attitudes. Koreans are often reticent to talk about sex, even when it’s cis-het, so getting out there to help people take some initiative in their own sexuality is still a big deal.

I was really on the verge of tears to see this. Many booths were selling things, pins or flags, erotic books and drawings, non-erotic books and drawings featuring LGBTQ+s, jewelry, booze, snacks, and so on. But making money wasn’t the point for anyone. For most of these booths, they were simply covering the cost of being there and making the materials that they were handing out for free to raise awareness. I have a stack of literature. Every booth was so full of friendly excited people. Any time we bought anything they cheered. Even just a little 50 cent postcard. Everything was a victory in their goals of increasing the awareness of their cause.

I kept getting distracted from the booths by people in fun costumes. Asking permission to take a picture is not as much a hardship after I got used to the Middle East photo culture. I can’t put all the pictures in the blog, but they are all in the Facebook album. You’ll probably notice that a lot of the people I snagged photos of are Westerners. This does not mean that the festival was all expats. Actually, of the 50,000 people who showed up (record breaking by the way), I’d say less than 10% were expats. However, the Koreans tended to be a bit more conservative in their costuming, and so there is a disproportionate photo representation.

I found this fun l20160611_133102ady in rainbows and feathers who, when I asked if I could take a photo, told me she was with the US Embassy. It turned out there was a whole row of Embassy booths there, each country sending official representatives to support LGBTQ+ rights (and promote tourism, let’s be honest). And for just a few hours, I was really proud of my country for making this public, overt, international, diplomatic, and above all enthusiastic statement of support for LGBTQ+ and gentle pressure for Korea to catch up. (Spoilers: This feeling does not get to live long.)

We wandered around the booths looking at the huge array of inclusiveness and outreach. We watched some of the shows on the stage- so very Korean, people doing K-pop dances and such. It rained on us a couple times, but it didn’t slow anything down; everyone just popped open umbrellas or put on raincoats. Even the performances didn’t stop in the20160611_134559 rain, they dancers just put on some plastic ponchos and kept right on dancing. I heard later that some of the protesters had apparently been praying for rain to ruin our day. I can only imagine their frustration when we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. If anything, it was a refreshing cool down during the summer heat!

Lest you think that all the churchy-folks were on the wrong side of the police line, we also found a couple of religious booths there embracing LGBTQ+ with signs and slogans about love, acceptance and Jesus. There was at least one Methodist group, and another group of Anglicans. Before you go on thinking that Archbishop Tutu is a crazy Drag Queen stage name, no. He’s a real Archbishop from South Africa whose daughter gave up the ministry to marry her girlfriend. He’s totally a real ally.

We got some mojitos in a bag, took silly pictures with the folks from Lush (maybe the only non-sex related corporate sponsor there, but I really like them as a company so I’m OK with them supporting the Festival to promote their stuff). They had this giant pink triangle people could hold and take selfies in. We took lots of other photos too. There was a girl with a beautiful bird who, when I tried to ask if I could take her picture, instead put her bird on my shoulder and took my phone to take a picture of me instead. There was a giant Kiwi at the New Zealand booth. And there were countless people in fun and adorable costumes.

Among the performers too numerous to count, I recognized one of the Queens from the show I went to here in Busan the weekend before. This time she had a set of 4 hunky dancers in fun costumes with her. I enjoyed the show, but I think even more impressive was the massive audience enthusiasm. The crowds on the lawn came hurtling toward the stage for her performances and fans were screaming and waving hands and signs in the air like a Beatles concert.

It took us over 2 hours to make a full circuit of the plaza and then we realized we’d missed some stuff! I cannot talk enough about how inclusive this festival was. So much representation, everyone sharing love and information. Smiles everywhere. There were also more disabled Koreans there in one day than I’ve seen in the 4 months I’ve lived here. Folks with mobility issues that left them in motorized wheelchairs, and not just old people, young people with a variety of disabilities. Everyone was welcome.

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Another big thing here was the sheer volume of Koreans. Yes, it’s Korea, there *should* be more Koreans, but a lot of people, both Korean and expat, seem to think that events like this are led by and dominated by expats. There’s a horrible myth among the anti-LGBTQ people here that Korean’s actually can’t be gay and that any Korean who thinks they are has been infected by outsiders. Many of the protester signs that weren’t telling us that Homosexuality is a sin were telling the gays to get out because they believe it’s a foreign infection and not a domestic issue. The more Koreans co-ordinate events like KQCF, the more who operate awareness booths and distribute information to their countrymen in Korean, the more who show up to support and learn, the better off LGBTQ+ is in Korea. Expats can show up, but we’re like allies here, we can’t change the country from the outside, we can only tell our Korean bros & sis’s that we support them and love them.

The March

20160611_181534The “parade” did have some “floats”, but it was not what we tend to think of as parades these days. There were a few trucks out in front with banners and people in costume on display in the truck beds, but the majority of the affair was much more akin to a political march than a celebratory parade. The walking area had us leaving the plaza, going up several blocks and around a big loop before returning to the plaza. It was around 3km, so not a huge hike, but definitely enough to attract attention, which was the point after all. The trucks out front 20160611_164622had a few decorations, mostly pink triangles and rainbows, and the people on the trucks were holding pro-love signs and dancing to encourage the crowd. There was nothing like a “parade float” in sight. Actually, that’s not totally true, the protesters had some pretty swanked up gear on the side of the road, but they didn’t march with us.

The majority of people in costumes (as I mentioned before) were foreigners who are more used to the out and proud attitude of Pride parades in the West. There were a few lovely Korean drag queens and a couple others in interesting get ups, but most were wearing fairly every day clothes. Some had on T-shirts with slogans for their cause, some wore various pride flags as capes, a few dressed in traditional Korean historical garb, lots had little signs or buttons, many people had rainbow umbrellas up to shield them from the sun, some waved giant flags high overhead and one couple even put some rainbow dusters in their packs to look like wings! Just because they weren’t going “all out” Western Pride style didn’t mean they hadn’t put thought and effort into their appearance that day.

I could have speculated that a percentage of those 50,000 in the plaza just turned up to stare and had little idea of what was going on, but nobody marches 3km in the June Seoul heat for a lookie loo. So, I’m sure that everyone marching that day was dedicated. I personally felt incredibly lucky to be involved because it felt more like a march than a parade. I felt like here was a thing that people still need to see. There are no “victory” signs at Pride in Korea yet.

The police continued to be amazing. They flanked the streets, blocking traffic as well as guarding us from the protesters along the route. The march was quite long and there weren’t enough police to line it all from start to finish, so as the tail end passed one group of police, they had to run ahead of us to take their place at the next phase of the route. Dedication!

20160611_164901There were plenty of protesters right at the start of the route near the plaza, but as we went on, their number dwindled and the amount of supportive bystanders increased. I’m so incredibly proud of the marchers that day.
The protesters constantly screamed at us, often with megaphones, words of hate and fear and rejection. However, not once did anyone in the festival or parade retaliate with anything other than words of love. As the protesters screamed “homosexuality is a sin” the 20160611_172542marchers yelled back “I love you”. We echoed their “hallelujah”s and smiled at them and blew them kisses. I’m personally a big fan of meeting hate with love, but it’s
hard and I’ve never before seen such a huge crowd so determinedly return love while receiving so much hate. I think Jesus would be proud.

20160611_165222As the protesters fell away, we began to notice people on the sidewalk holding signs of support or waving and smiling and giving us thumbs up signs. Restaurant owners leaned out of their second and third story windows to wave down at us. A group at Starbucks had clearly planned ahead, because not only had they gotten seats right by the window, but they all held up rainbow signs reading “support equality”.

I know it’s not up to me, as an outsider, to tell a country how it should be. I didn’t march because I thought my presence would change someone’s mind. I admit, I went to the festival to see what it would be like here, and it completely blew me away.

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The After Party

We sat around the plaza until things wound down because we were pooped after the march and we were more than slightly terrified of the public transport while the place was emptying out. The after party we chose to go to was the “official” Korea Queer Culture Festival one, although there were several around and I might choose a different one if I’m able to go again next year.

We bused back to the hostel for a shower and some dinner, but the location of the party was not conducive to public transport, so we had to try for another taxi (where are all the taxis, Seoul?). The nice young man in the convenience store called a taxi for us, but the driver refused to come because it wasn’t a big enough fare. It was pouring down rain and after 10pm, and the poor guy trying to help us is like, oh you can walk there in 20 minutes. No, thanks. Eventually we got a taxi to stop for us and made it to our goal.

13467613_10101445663321721_1849971968_oThe location for the party was stunning: a man-made island in the river. The buildings were huge and fun to look at with sweeping shapes and color changing windows. The party itself was a little lackluster for my tastes, but the one great thing about it was that it was about 98% Koreans. I sound like a broken record, but a lot of events I’ve gone to have had a large expat attendance and that’s fine for fun fun festivals, but this is more than that, it’s a civil rights movement with some party trappings and there can’t be a movement if the people of the country aren’t behind it, so it made me really happy to see so many Koreans there being openly gay in a way they can’t be in their day to day lives yet.

13467513_10101445663341681_243537355_oThere were some vendors in the main hall selling snacks and t shirts. The VIP lounge was quite classy, but the line for the bar was insane. The mojitos were outstanding, however, and there was a classical quartet performance as well. The dance floor was roomy and the DJs were fun, but he dancing was very Korean. This meant that groups of people got up on the stage and danced the moves to K-pop songs while the audience/dance floor did their best to keep up with the same moves… that they all knew… to all the songs. This is an aspect of Korean culture I may just never get used to.

We danced a while (not the right moves, but it was fun anyway), had some drinks, chatted with the few other English speakers we found and finally headed back out sometime around 2am. The next day was all buses and trains again. I got home Sunday afternoon thanks to the speedy KTX train and went to bed that night with a head and heart full of love and hope.20160611_153650That lasted until Monday morning when I opened my Facebook.


This next part is going to be the sad part. It will be followed by the rant part, and finally the bottom layer in the love pie as previously promised. If you want to skip all or any of it, I won’t be offended. I thought a lot about what to say and while I don’t feel comfortable just ignoring it, I know many people have been over-saturated by the events in Orlando. That being said, I hope you read it.


Monday (the Sad Part)

I think everyone knows about the stages of grief, but I think there is one missing at the beginning: empty. I place it before denial because going “no no no, that’s not real” is a distinct and separate phase from “empty”. It’s happened to me only a few other times, typically when the news hits me first thing in the morning. I remember feeling it on September 11th, because I woke up to 14 messages on my answering machine from my mother making sure I was OK (no, I didn’t live anywhere near NY or DC at the time, but moms). She told me what happened and I was like … “what?” There were no feelings at all for a while. Same thing on November 30th (you can read that post if you want). It was several hours before it started to have an impact.

comfortinThis Monday was the same way. I read the news, several times. I even went to google to find an actual journalistic report or 20 and not just some Facebook posts. I got dressed, cooked breakfast, went to work. Explained to my co-teachers that I might be a bit emotional that day because there was a horrible mass shooting in my home country and proceeded to get ready to teach classes. I think I made it through 2 classes before I actually started crying. I didn’t know anyone involved. I’m somewhere beyond “colleagues” yet well inside of “lookie loos” on circle of tragedy in the ring theory. After experiencing the love and warmth of the Korean Pride Festival, it was devastating to me to see what my own country had been up to.

Over the next week I went through plenty of ups and downs. I had an upset stomach from the feelings, so I was nauseous even when I was hungry. I randomly started crying, or talking way too loudly as I try to avoid screaming. I tried to explain the situation to Koreans, but things I take as givens about American culture are so confusing to them, I had to back up and give mini-history lessons just to catch up to how f*d up things were before this shooting. Phrases like “so they buy a politician” send my Korean co-workers reeling. When they asked me why we don’t just vote against pro-gun legislators, I had to explain the NRA, lobbying and gerrymandering. But even with that said, I’m incredibly lucky to have co-workers who will listen, discuss and sympathize because I’ve read other teachers here are forced to avoid it entirely at work.

The next day, a gunman was arrested in my hometown before (thankfully) he could shoot up a mosque just 2 blocks from a dear friend’s home. The internet is covered from head to toe with stuff about this event, and yeah, we should be talking up a storm. We should be shocked, angry, hurt, outraged. Stuff like this should not be normal. I started and deleted about a million posts because I couldn’t focus on anything without swaying wildly all over the emotional spectrum and ending up with some all caps version of “wtfbbq stop killing ppl!!!”.

I’ve gotten some thoughts condensed now. There’s plenty of stuff that’s been hashed and rehashed about anti-discrimination laws, gun control laws, immigration, religion, and so on. I’m not going to do those again because so many people on the internet have already said things more eloquently than I ever will (such as John Oliver on the NRA: Part 1, Part 2)

Instead, I’m going to talk about connection, the “or” problem, can vs should as it applies to free speech, and the crab bucket.

The “Rant” in 4 Sets

It’s not a traditional rant, but I’m not soft-balling it either. I’m not going to curse and yell and insult people. That doesn’t help. But I’m not pulling punches and guarding every turn of phrase. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you have an open mind (I don’t have a big enough following for trolls yet) so I’m hoping you’ll be open to some different perspectives on the issues this has brought up and won’t nitpick every detail or metaphor to death in an attempt to avoid the message.

Disclaimer: I have employed the word “you” here as a general term for “a person” or “a group of people” because it’s shorter and more convenient than those phrases, and because it sounds less awkward than “one”. If you (actually you) don’t feel like you fall into those thought patterns, please feel free to observe how other humans do. If you (personally) think it applies to you, then please do the awesome thing and admit your past errors and strive for personal improvement.

Connection

The problem of mass shootings in America has no quick fix. It’s not one type of problem. It’s a gun problem, and a mental health problem, and a male problem, and a sexual entitlement problem, and a loneliness problem, and a homophobia problem, and and and….

The fact that I can’t remember which shooting this came after is a horrible sign, but someone pointed out that socially well connected humans don’t go off and kill a bunch of fellow humans. I don’t mean socially acceptable people, by the way. Not the kind of person everyone says “he seemed so nice” about. I’m talking about connection. Genuine meaningful social connection is possibly the most important thing we can do for another human being.maslows_hierarchy_of_needs Love and belonging are the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, only overshadowed by the need for food and safety and integral to achieving esteem and self-actualization. They are NOT OPTIONAL for humans.

In order to make the connections that provide us with the sense of love and belonging we need so much, we have to feel safe (second tier) and have our physical needs met (first tier). This means things like jobs, minimum wage, enough to eat and no fear the power will be cut off soon are important not just for the person at risk of snapping and being violent, but for all the people around him (yes, him, they’ve all been men) who need to be in a safe place in their lives in order to be available for social connections. It’s not about handouts and food stamps for the lazy or entitled. It’s about creating an environment where people are capable of achieving love and belonging, because only then can they start investing back in that environment in a positive way.

To make social connections we need to be mentally and emotionally healthy too. Mental health care availability and removal of mental health care stigma are a big part of making that happen. Plus, it has the side benefit that people who are really struggling can get some extra help before they feel the need to lash out violently.

We need a social value of peer care. This whole “every man for himself”, “not my circus, not my monkeys” attitude is destructive. A society is dependent on co-operation and co-care for success. It’s supported by science and religion. But I don’t even know how to get this idea off the ground in the US. Rugged individualism (aka “selfishness”) is deeply ingrained in the American identity these days, but it hasn’t always been. Once upon a time, there was a horrible war against some evil men and our country banded together. I don’t know if it takes Nazis to make us help each other, but it does prove that we’re capable.

The “Or” Problem

tumblr_m02txbbmhq1qa1zvjAmerica is fascinated, hypnotized, enslaved to the idea that every issue has two and only two sides which are so opposed to one another that any form of compromise or middle ground is simply unthinkable. I don’t mean uncomfortable to think about, I mean, people’s brains are actually incapable of thinking the thought. Thought rejected. This is known as the “false dichotomy”.

Example: All the guns or none of the guns. If you are for gun rights, you must be in favor of all the guns. If you are for gun control, surely you want to destroy all the guns. Many of you say, no no, we don’t think that way. BUT, when you tell a die-hard NRA conservative you want gun legislation, all they hear is “‘Bama wants to take our guns” and the next thing you know we’re being moved at state owned gunpoint into UN appointed Orwellian style living blocs. Madness! (I’m not making this up, I wish I were.)

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Ugh. I said I didn’t want to have a conversation about guns. Sorry. You can look at many aspects of American life and see that you’ve been sold on an idea that something must be A or B and there simply is no alternative or middle ground. Political parties and candidates are another great example. Republican or Democrat… anyone heard of the Green Party? Many people seem to think that the alternative to hating LGBTQ+ is embracing it wholeheartedly. And, while I wish you would, I also know that it’s totally possible to disagree with a person’s life choices and still not hate them. I do it every day.

twilight-tumblr_ktux7xw1621qatyd2o1_500-breathtakingdottumblrdotcomEven in this way, Americans are dichotomous. You love it or you hate it. Well, you know what? I don’t love or hate pistachio ice cream. I bet there’s a lot of that stuff in your life and you don’t even think about it. But, when it comes to a hot button issue, you must choose a side. Team Tony, Team Cap. Team Edward, Team Jacob. Team Coke, Team Pepsi… really, that’s what you’re reducing complex social issues like religion and sexuality to when you do this.

guncontrol1And while we’re at it, a side note on false equivalencies. , such as this lovely comparison of Obama to Hitler. Both were in favor of a policy, therefore they are the same? No. Obama =/= Hitler.  I could spend the rest of the year finding examples of how this is used in all these polemical arguments, but the ones I want to bring up are: anger =/= hate, and dislike =/= hate.

I’m angry at my sister for staying in a crappy city, but I still love her. I’m angry with my friends when they are stubbornly stupid about writing in a vote that won’t count in their state, but I still love them. I’m angry with my students when they don’t do their homework, but … you get the idea.

I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t like the creepy homeless guy on the street corner who smells funny. I don’t like Kanye West. But, I still think they all deserve fundamental human rights and that old American goodie: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

But Kaine, that kind of anger/dislike isn’t the same as what I feel toward (insert group here… oh, let’s say Westboro Baptist, but pick your own if it helps). Yeah, it’s smaller maybe. WB makes me want to pull my hair out. Makes me want to scream. Makes me want to go to a junkyard and smash things. BUT, it doesn’t make me want to kill them. It doesn’t make me want to take away their right to free speech. It also kind of makes me want to make them some tea and say, hey do you need a hug cause you’re clearly very upset about something (though in the case of the homeless guy, maybe not a hug until he’s showered).

ojigt5fWe need to stop buying into A or B. We need to ask “why” about everything over and over until we discover the root issues. We need to remember it’s “liberty and justice for all” full stop, not “all white Christians” or “all men” or “all heterosexuals”. And then we need to take a long hard look at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as it applies to everyone. We’ve already decided that taking someone else’s life (murder) or property (stealing) is not a liberty anyone is permitted no matter how happy it will make them. We’ve decided that absolute freedom to do whatever you want is not the path to a healthy society. We already curtail certain actions deemed destructive to the well-being of our nation and its people. Of course we must be careful about what we choose to curtail, but we cannot act like it is an anathema to do so.  Ben Franklin said that a person who would surrender freedom in exchange for security deserves neither, but that’s become another “or”: freedom or security. Why? Why can’t it be and?

Freedom and security.

Dislike and respect.

Disagreement and compassion.

Can v Should: As It Applies to Free Speech

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When I was living in the Middle East, I learned some very valuable lessons about free speech. I’ve been working on a separate post about that, but the core of it I think is important to this issue as well. But let me be clear: I am in NO WAY advocating for the government control of speech or expression. I am talking about social and civic responsibility that comes with having that freedom. Abraham Lincoln once said that “we should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” There are some people out there who are just easily offended by things that are genuinely not damaging to others. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to hear. I will support the legal right to free speech forever. But, the second part of that quote is damn important.

63159187In America, when someone says something insulting (about your faith, your lifestyle, your weight, appearance, gender, orientation, skin color, etc) the result is all too often “You’re an adult, suck it up”. The expectation is that adults should just be able to deal with being insulted or having their feelings hurt (even though arguably many of these insults are signs of bigotry and oppression and not just about hurt feelings).

In the Middle East, when I had conversations about such insults, I explained that we didn’t want the government to police what we could say about religion or anything else for that matter. This is the core of our free speech amendment, that the government can’t punish you for the insult. People understood that part, but what they couldn’t wrap their heads around was why anyone would want to be so insulting in the first place.

Sometimes I get to explain about how important it is to be able to speak out against powerful institutions that may be corrupt or have a corrupting influence, that may be stealing or hurting people. That’s the reason we have the first amendment, after all, not simply to protect the Westboro Baptist Church screaming insults at a funeral, but to protect people like Edward Snowden who tell us when our government is breaking laws, or in a less controversial light, people like Neil Degrasse Tyson who speaks out about climate change and evolution despite how unpopular those things are in the US.

In other words, the right to free speech is protected so we can punch up at those in power who are ostensibly abusing it. Using your words to hurt, bully, intimidate, threaten, marginalize or oppress other people isn’t exercising your first amendment rights, it’s just being an asshole.

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When you tell the story of someone who is insulted for their race, religion, gender, orientation, etc and the reply is “You’re an adult” the follow up shouldn’t be “suck it up”, the comment isn’t directed at the victim, it’s directed at the attacker. “You’re an adult. You should know better”. Kids insult each other, bully each other, and call each other names because they are learning. As adults we tell them it’s wrong. We ask them to think of how they would feel if someone called them that name. You’re an adult, you should know better than to insult someone that way for no reason other than to prove you can. What are you 6? Like two kids in the backseat of the car, one sibling holding a finger just millimeters away from the other’s skin. “I’m not touching you! There’s no law against it. I have free speech.”

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Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.

You’re an adult. You should know better.

The Crab Bucket

When I was learning how to be happy (another one of those things I keep meaning to write about in more detail), I read a lot of studies, and listened to a lot of psychiatrists, therapists, sociologists and neuroscientists. One day, I’ll make a comprehensive list with links and you can all take the shortcut to the searching I did, but until then, it gets doled out piecemeal.

Today’s piece: toxic relationships & crab bucket tribes. I had to learn about vulnerability from Brene Brown. I had been hurt so much that for part of my life it was easier not to feel. But Brene reminded me that is not a sustainable model for happiness, it’s only a barrier to pain and the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

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Being vulnerable is the only way to experience love, and love is key to happiness. Don’t just take my word for it, watch her TED talks, read her research. Being vulnerable means you open up to people and experiences. You let them in. That means people can hurt you. As a result, it’s really important to back away from the people who will hurt you often and badly. They may have the best intentions. They are certainly worthy of love, but that is not your job.

Additionally, I learned that our mental tracks, our personal narratives if you will, are greatly influenced by the people we spend time with. If we hang out with people who have no ambition, who are negative and critical all the time, who always find something to complain about or some reason not to try, then it becomes harder for us to break out of those thought patterns.kb2zocq

Even worse is the “crab bucket”. I learned this word from Sir Terry Pratchett, but I don’t think he made it up. Basically, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of live crabs because as soon as one tries to climb out, it’s bucket-mates grab on and pull it back down. People do this too. People who are in bad situations for whatever reason, people who have had to learn to accept those situations (bad job, too many kids, crappy apartment, bad relationship, wrong career, etc), people who are unhappy but unwilling (or unable without great effort) to change it. They are comfortable in their discomfort. Seeing someone else get out, “make it”, improve their lives should be a cause for celebration, but too often it simply reminds them that their own lives are less than they want and it breeds resentment. They will attempt to keep those around them in the crab-bucket for all kinds of reasons besides flat up jealousy or resentment. It could be because they like you and want you around, they want to have things in common with you, or because they don’t want to be alone, but it’s still not good for you.

Whether someone is actively toxic in the sense of abuse and chronic negativity or passively crab-bucket in the best meaning friendly way, they are still an obstacle to your happiness and you can’t be vulnerable to them, you can’t invest your time in them without expecting them to have a commensurate impact on your life.

Excising toxic and crab-bucket people from my life was not easy. It was a deeply painful process. I admit, I didn’t confront many people. I let most of them quietly drift away. Moving out of country helped that a bit. Only the ones I truly deeply cared about did I try to talk to. Sometimes it worked and we improved our relationship. Sometimes it didn’t and it blew up in my face.

Now I’m getting better at making non-toxic friends up front, so hopefully I won’t have to do that again. But I’m encountering a new toxic, crab-bucket relationship in my life that I didn’t really see before: my country.

Your country is a lot like your family. You don’t get to choose where you’re born. I’ve often thought I was lucky to be born in the US. So much privilege and wealth. Such a wonderful history of freedom and innovation. Anything was possible… the American dream.

I learned the hard way that’s not real, but I was still hoping America was going to pull through. I admire people who work tirelessly to improve it, who don’t give up. I said before that even toxic people are worthy of love and I meant it. Just because I can’t be the person who gives it to them doesn’t make them unworthy. I guess I feel the same way about America. I’m starting to feel like hanging around crab-bucket-web1America is overly negative. I definitely feel like America is turning (has turned?) into one big crab bucket. People tell me all the time “every place has problems” as a way of minimizing the problems in America or somehow trying to equate them with problems in other places. People tell me all the time, “not everyone can just leave” as a way of reasoning out why they can’t.

Every place does have problems, just like every relationship has problems. You don’t stop talking to all humans because of it. You don’t give up on vulnerability or love. But you don’t stay in an abusive or toxic relationship either. Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m comparing the US to an abusive or toxic friend/partner. I hear people in bad relationships say things like “no one’s perfect” and that’s what I hear when people say “every place has problems” in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Places that have problems like that are the national equivalent of abusive spouses. If you’re comparing yourself to central Africa to find something worse, it’s like saying yeah, he slaps me around sometimes, but at least he doesn’t cut me up or break any bones like Betty and Paul down the street. Neither one is ok!

And yes, it’s probably true that not everyone can leave the way I have. But more people could leave than are doing so. Countries like Germany are struggling with record low population growth and are desperate for immigrants who can contribute to their society as well as their population numbers. Places like Korea are giving away scholarships (transportation and living expenses included) to people who want to come here and commit to a multi-year study of Korean language. Furthermore, the people who are going to stay should be doing so because they want to fight for America, to work and toil and loose sleep and gain gray hairs to rebuild a place worth living in. That’s worth doing, oh gods yes.

Not every bullied LGBTQ+ leaves the bigoted southern towns they were raised in as soon as they turn 18. Some because they don’t know how, can’t afford it, think they have no place to go. But some because they want to stay to work to improve conditions for the next generation and that’s work worth doing. I met an amazingly bright young lady while I was teaching in China. She could have easily used her intelligence and education to get a job and move to a great city, or even leave China which is the dream of so many there. Instead, she told me her dream was to go back to her tiny village where people don’t even have indoor plumbing and teach at the local elementary school to give the next generation a better chance. Wow.

There are people in my life I thought were worth fighting for. I haven’t abandoned every relationship that was damaging. But I’ve made choices and worked for the ones I wanted in spite of the risk.

I’m looking really hard at America right now, because I don’t think I can passively live in the crab-bucket anymore. Right now, I’m taking a “break”, travelling around the world,  but before I go back for anything longer than a vacation, I have to decide if this is a toxic relationship I have to cut loose, or if it’s a painful relationship I want to work to fix.

Ghandi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world, but only you can decide what that means for you.

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The Bottom Layer of Love

Penny: “Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.”

Billy:  “And sometimes there’s a third… even deeper level… and that one is the same as the top surface one…Like with pie.”

-Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

I promised in my preview that I would end the blog post on a positive note because it’s important to emotional health. I admit I’m not feeling super positive about the situation myself, but I’m going to do my best.

For me and others here in Korea, we experienced the love of the Pride festival before the shock of Orlando, but as the hours and days passed I began to see that in the US, they experienced news of the Korea Queer Culture Festival after learning about Orlando. So let’s start with a recap of the beautiful day. I found this great video on YouTube made by an English speaking Korean vlogger. Enjoy!

It’s the 1 year anniversary of legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.

The Pentagon has lifted the ban on transgenders serving in the military.

Kim Davis’ acts are now officially illegal and court clerks have to issue marriage licenses whether they like it or not.

Despite how dark it may seem in the wake of tragedies like this one, we need to remember the singular rallying cry “love conquers hate”. After the shooting, one friend still in the US sent a link to me of a news article about Korean parents who came to the festival to give out hugs and tell the festival goers that they were loved just as they were. She told me it gave her great hope after reading about the news in the US to see that love was still fighting around the world, so I’ll just leave you with this message of love.. like with pie.

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Sandcastles, Speakeasies & Queens

My summer is kicking off to a great start. There are still more festivals and events than any one person could ever hope to keep up with. The weather is heating up, but I’m learning some native tricks on how to keep cool (and avoid the sunburn!). In preparation for the out of town trip next weekend, I’ve been trying to take it a little easy, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to see and do amazing things. Last weekend, we went to the Sand Sculpture Festival at Haeundae Beach, and this weekend we found a visiting Drag Show and a secret speakeasy bar.


Sand Sculpture Festival

Haeundae Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Busan. It’s a little small compared to say… California beaches, but it’s beautiful and full of fun activities. For example, the Holi Hai Festival I went to in the spring was held there. In this case, it was a sand sculpture festival. Artists from around Korea came to the beach to build gigantic sand sculptures and people from around Busan came to admire the art, eat fun snacks, and have fun in the sand and surf.

20160528_160206As soon as we stepped off the subway, we were greeted by a parade. This is the second one I’ve seen at Haeundae and I’ve only gone down there a few times. I’m not sure if it was for the sand sculpture festival or the Port Festival, but it was fun to watch. There was a pirate ship, some movie characters, dragon dancers and plenty of people in random costumes.

20160528_164324When we arrived at the beach we were greeted with banners, flags, a crazy fish/car/bike, a giant cat bounce-house and some para-sailors with giant fan propellers. The first few sand sculptures were smaller, about the size of a car, and were clearly propaganda or advertising rather than part of the art display. Nonetheless, the skill involved in creating a sculpture from sand that had such precise shapes and lines was awe inspiring. I’ve worked with clay before, and it holds a shape well. It has tools that you can use to create super flat surfaces or precise curves and lines. But anyone who has tried to build a sandcastle knows that sand is treacherous, crumbly and not easy to shape.

I did a minimal Google search on the how-tos of sand sculpture and it’s a major undertaking to make any sand structure higher than about half a meter. These sculptures were easily 4-5 meters high. The first one we came across was a giant mound of sand carved(?) with a very simple design of a pillar decorated mansion. Even while marveling at the size of it, I wondered a little about why it was so simple. But later on in the night, it was functioning as a screen for a projector light show part of the festival.

As we continued to wend our way through the sculptures, I realized that each one was based on a nautical literary theme. The very first one was The Voyage of the Dawntreader from the Narnia series (my favorite book from that series, by the way). We could clearly see Aslan, the Dawntreader, Edmond, Lucy, Caspian and Eustace as a dragon. The only sad thing was that the whole wall was in the shade, making our pictures a little lackluster. The other side of the sand wall was a mural scene of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and facing the Kraken as it destroyed a ship.

There were some that may have been based in stories I don’t know, or were simply nautically themed. There was a smaller sculpture with a scuba diver, and another with a man who appeared to be alone on a small boat. But, we also recognized Moby DickGulliver’s Travels, The Little Mermaid, The Odyssey, and King Poseidon. There were a couple of pieces that looked more like they came from Asian literature or history, and I’m sad to say I didn’t recognize them, but the detail on many of the works was simply stunning.

I was particularly taken with the sculpture of Ariel and Ursula. On one side, was the mermaid art, but no average mermaid. The artist had managed to represent both the fin and the legs in the same pose. I knew it was a mermaid at once, even though the fin was not as prominent as it usually is in mermaid art, but it wasn’t until I got to the other side and saw the unmistakable visage of Ursula that I knew it had to be Ariel.

The Odyssey was possibly the most impressive sculpture. Rather than being two sided, it was more conical with images relating the the adventures of Odysseus all the way around it. It wasn’t so much a chronological mural of the tale as a mish-mash of imagery of all the monsters and events with the Cyclops dominating the mountaintop and the wrecked ship laid out below.

At the end of the roped off displays were some much smaller sculptures that were not quite as high quality and also covered in color. There were kids playing on and around them, so they were clearly not being protected or preserved. I guessed that there might have been a timed competition earlier in the day and these were the remains. Famous characters Spongebob and the cast of One-Piece were at least in keeping with the nautical theme. Ironman was there just because he’s the most popular superhero in Korea.

Someone had also built a fantastic hill of sand for the purpose of playing King of the Mountain and also for sand tobogganing. Kids were clambering up the man-made dune and sliding on plastic sleds back down to their parents waiting with cameras below. There was also a walk through sand maze, a dune buggy arena where people could drive rented 4-wheelers around a track marked out in sand, and a whole bunch of tents with activities and souvenirs. We found some artists throwing pottery, some face painting, and other kid-oriented crafts as well.

As the sun was getting low, it was getting time for a snack or even dinner, and just as we were thinking about heading across the street to one of the many international restaurants that line the beachfront, we stumbled into the festival’s own eatery. About a dozen tiny seafood stands had set up shop in a parking lot. This was no small feat, since each food stall had at it’s core a stack of aquariums holding the live sea creatures that would be cooked up fresh. There were many kinds of shellfish, lobsters, fish, and the strange looking “sea penis“. I’m not kidding. That’s really what it’s called. I haven’t been brave enough to eat one yet, but I see them at pretty much every waterfront festival.

20160528_180822We spotted some mussels, of which I am a big fan, but then right next to them I saw some beautiful spiral shelled mollusks that I’d never tried before. I was hopeful that they would be a similar taste experience to the mussels nearby, and I proposed that we split a plate of new experience instead of going for the safe bet. This was not a disappointing choice. I understand that for some, the concept of oysters, mussels, and other sea mollusks is not an appetizing one. For me, well, there’s a reason I loved eating in Japan so much. Most of the animals in the sea are flipping delicious. Especially fresh. These little morsels were no exception. The plate of shells was served with wooden picks for us to pull the flesh from the shell. The fascinating part was that the shape of the meat was the same as the spiral shape of the shell, maintaining it’s spring-like appearance even after it was removed. Instead of garlic butter, the Koreans enjoy their shellfish with a spicy yet piquant chili sauce. So yum. The shells were too beautiful to just trash, so I tucked one away in my bag and now it lives on my souvenir table.

We went for a more substantial meal at a magnificently decorated Indian restaurant with a beautiful view of the ocean. The meal was delicious, and felt so extravagant, but it was really quite reasonably priced. It’s not quite as cheap as the four-star meals I used to get in China, but it’s really nice to live in a place where you can get a high quality dining experience for an Applebee’s price range. Plus, as much as I enjoy Korean food, I get tired eating the same cuisine for too long (no matter what it is) and I love to be able to hop over for another cultural culinary experience so easily.

After dinner and watching the sunset from our table, we headed back out to the beach to see what the after dark part of the festival would be. I’ve learned well enough now that Koreans are a night loving people, and that every festival has a plan for darkness. In this case there were some bright halogens lighting up the sand sculptures with new and interesting shadows. Because the images were done in bass relief and not full 3D, the directionality and quality of the light made a big difference to the way the art appeared. Taking pictures was a little more challenging because the lights were all at human height and people kept walking in front of the lights casting huge shadows on the images, but with a little patience I managed to get a couple decent ones. Please check out the whole day’s photo album here.

As we made our way back toward the main entrance, we spotted a number of night time entertainers. Buskers and fire dancers were drawing small crowds, but the main event was a stage set up on the beach where a DJ was spinning some dance tunes. The greatest part about Korean festival culture is the total inclusiveness. Even after dark, with club music and flashing colored lights, the beach was still full of all ages. Little kids running around and playing in the sand, old grandparents bobbing along to the beat, young couples taking the opportunity to hold hands and dance close.

We couldn’t quite push our way up to the stage, but we plopped our bags down and danced barefoot in the sand to the club music while the Koreans around us giggled a little at the strange foreign behavior, and more than a couple took our abandon as an excuse to dance a little themselves.

When we were all worn out, we headed down to the sea and sat down just beyond the tide line with some beers to enjoy the night. People were setting off small fireworks all over. Despite the fact that the authorities tried more than once to announce that fireworks were not allowed on the beach, everyone around us brought armfuls of tubes to stick in the sand or hold on to and point over the water. The beach patrol came by more than once to stop it, but the Koreans just did not give up.

As the night wore on, people got more and more wild. The fireworks increased in number and in closeness to us. A couple times I was worried that the live sparks might just hit us, but we remained unburnt if slightly ashy. Young men started daring each other to run into the still cold seawater. Young ladies waded in and shrieked at the cold water around their ankles. Soon, all pretense was gone and men and women alike were chasing each other fully clothed into the water, splashing and dunking and having fun. I was tempted to join in, but I didn’t have a change of clothes and I was worried that we might not get a taxi to take us home if we were dripping wet. I think next time we go to the beach I’m going to have to pack a towel and a change or be extra careful to leave before the subway stops running.

When we finished our beer and needed to find the bathrooms, we decided that it was time to move off the beach. After some serious de-sanding, we made it back onto the main road and started trying to find a nice bar to settle into. Unfortunately, all the expat bars were crammed to the gills and our day had just been too relaxing to finish it off with a meat market, so we kept walking, looking halfheartedly at bars and keeping an eye out for empty taxis. Just as we were about to give up, I spotted a sign for The Back Room. It was up on the second floor and looked intriguing.

We couldn’t see a way in, so I thought maybe the stairs were inside the first floor restaurant. We went in to check it out, but when we asked about going upstairs, they directed us to a phone in the wall. I picked up the handset and pressed the white button. I was greeted in Korean, but responded in English, at which point the voice switched into a pleasant European accent of some kind and asked if we were wearing “slippers”. I was a little confused, but Koreans have a kind of shoe I tend to think of as a “sandal” that they wear mostly indoors or in bathrooms. They’re not all obviously plastic casual things, and I’d seen lots of people wearing them around the beach, or just down the street in the warmer weather, but I guess it’s like fancy restaurants not wanting people in flip-flops.

I thought my shoes were classy enough, being solid black with a little decal on the strap, but they didn’t pass muster and we had to move along, vowing to come back later with more appropriate footwear.

Queens of Seoul

During the week, I ran across an add on Facebook for a show featuring the Queens of Seoul here in Busan. The LGBTQ+ culture in Korea is still trying to find it’s feet and there aren’t a whole lot of drag queens in the country. I found Hurricane Kimchi online shortly after I arrived, and I made plans to go up to Pride in Seoul (next weekend) way back in March, but most of the info out there is either coming from expats trying to find each other or just news stories about how LGBTQ+ are being treated, protested against, and ruled against legally in Korea. So when I saw this ad for something fun and friendly, I was psyched to go.

13321697_641762209305825_1532993938787707124_nThe FB ad said the show started at 10pm, and that cover was free from 9-11pm, so we decided to head over to the bar in time to get in free and get a table before the show. In this endeavor we were wholly successful. The Yaman Joint turned out to be a Jamacian/Rastafarian themed bar with a small stage and tiny dance floor. We were shown to a table and left with a tablet menu. The drinks were a little more expensive than I was used to at our neighborhood dive bar, but not crazy. Plus, they had shisha on the menu. For those of you who don’t remember, I fell in love with the flavored tobacco served in hookahs while living in Saudi Arabia. (I know, smoking is bad. Don’t smoke kids.) It’s not something you find much outside the Middle East, and often it’s not very well made when it is. The Shisha here was a very reasonable price, so we ordered some double apple flavor and a couple of tri-colored frozen rum drinks and settled down to wait for the show in abject happiness.

20160604_222838Around 10pm, a young lady came out and started doing a little light jazz on a piano keyboard. Soon she was joined by a saxophonist and we were treated to a mellow improv performance. Next a tiny little Korean woman dressed in plain black slacks and a white blouse came on stage and channeled the soul of a pop diva. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a big guy came out with a mike and started beatboxing. I’m not a huge fan of this activity unless it’s done well. This man was talented. Not only was he good, but he became the third “instrument” along with the piano and saxophone. If you’ve never heard anyone do a jazz/hip-hop improv with piano, sax and beatbox, I recommend you make that happen.

The performances went on, varying in style. The beatboxer and saxophonist did a duet of “Uptown Funk” that was truly funky, and he managed a solo dancetronic beat that got half the bar out of their seats and on the dance floor. I thought it was just an opener for the drag show, but once people were up and dancing, the DJ took over and began spinning tunes. It was fun for a while. We got up and danced, we ordered another round of drinks, we wandered out on to the porch to admire the view. As midnight came and went, however, I was starting to get anxious that we might have somehow wound up in the wrong place or that the show had been cancelled. On top of that, the fun dance music the DJ started with had morphed into some of my least favorite overly repetitive style of hip hop. Not the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to or dancing to. The glow was fading.

I managed to pull up the ad on my phone and ask the waiters when it was starting. We were informed 1am. Now, I am not a fainting flower, but I do wake up at 6:30 am on weekdays. I know that even if the ad had said the show started at 1am, I would have still gone because the chance to see a drag show here in Korea was too good to pass up. I’m also a little torn, because I might have missed the 10pm musical performances if I’d shown up any later. C’est la vie. We stuck it out anyway and shortly after 1am, we were rewarded for our efforts.

I have to admit, I didn’t even notice at first when the show started because there was no announcement, there was no break in the music and no one left the dance floor. I was trying to keep an eye on it, but the stage was totally blocked from my view by the dancers. My first clue was when I realized no one was actually dancing anymore, and everyone was watching the stage. I stood up on the chair to see over the crowd and spotted someone on the stage, but couldn’t really get any kind of view. Then I decided to take my chances and see if I could get closer.

I’m not a tall person. 5’4″ in shoes, maybe. The stage was barely elevated a few inches off the ground and it felt like nearly everyone in the bar (at least 50% gay men) was taller than me. I joined the shove of bodies and tried to work my way closer, holding my camera up in the air to see if I could get any shots. My first pictures were half the back of people’s heads, and all I could see was the face of the performer (and only then because she was taller than nearly everyone else in the bar).

A super drunk rude dude just started shoving his way up to the stage, leaving a wake of upset people behind him. He shoved me straight into the two Korean girls in front of me, who nodded in sympathy when I pointed at him as I apologized. The first number I caught was Charlotte Goodenough, who did a fun and silly combination of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello and Adele’s Hello (from the other side). She had a prop phone that would “ring” as she was singing, interrupting her performance with some line from yet another song, such as “It’s Brittney, bitch”. Drag queens are famously lip syncers, not singers. But it was a clever combination of songs that made this number so fun to watch.

As the show progressed, the two girls in front of me decided to head back to their table, and I was one step closer to the stage. Then, another expat friend of mine (tall, black man) came in behind me and helped clear the rest of the way. He could easily see over my head (tall) and I was so close to the catwalk part of the stage, I had to put my foot up on it to keep my balance.

After Charlotte’s opener, we got treated to another 4 numbers: 2 by Kuciia Diamant who sports a sort of industrial goth look and is sexy as hell, 1 by Cha Cha who came out in a super fringed dress and ‘sang’ Rollin on the River while shakin’ her fringe and hair all over the place, and another by Charlotte who treated us to a vintage army girl costume and a little burlesque strip tease.

The crowd was wild. Korean crowds are often subdued, offering polite applause. I was surprised by the number of Koreans at the club that night, and possibly even more surprised at how excited and loud everyone was in support. Expats and Koreans alike showered the Queens with cash tips and everyone screamed their cheers at the end of every number. There wasn’t an ounce of protest or negativity. I feel lucky to have had the chance to see something that, while common in my home country, is still rare and often misunderstood here. I’m glad these performers aren’t letting that slow them down. Please check out the links to their pages and see all the pictures from the show on my FB page.

The Back Room

So, remember that secret speakeasy we passed by on our way back from the beach? Well, we went back. Armed (or maybe footed?) with proper shoes, we knew this time to head straight for the secret phone and dial up. They asked how many we were and then a wooden panel in the wall slid aside and revealed a hidden staircase. The stairwell was decorated in homage to the prohibition speakeasies with shelves of empty liquor bottles and art representing the roaring 20s.

We were greeted at the top of the stairs by the handsome young man with the European accent and seated at an elegant little table. The bar itself, like so many, was dark, but each table had a tiny spotlight that created a concentric ring of light on the marble tabletop. The decor was classy and minimalist, the music was fun but not so loud as to inhibit conversation. The menu was full of craft cocktails and a scotch and cigar menu that made me want to cry. I’d just enjoyed some shisha the night before, so I decided scotch and cigars would have to wait until another night, but the cocktail menu was more than appealing.

Sometimes, people tell me they don’t like the taste of alcohol. I wonder if these people have only ever tasted low quality brands, because I can’t imagine not enjoying the smooth taste of good whisky. The best cocktails are designed not to conceal the taste of the alcohol, but to compliment it. Using fresh juices, herbs, spices and other high end infusions to create works of gastronomic art that play into the alcohol of choice. These are not cocktails to get drunk to, they are cocktails to savor.

20160605_220258My eye was drawn instantly to the Whisky Sour which included fresh lemon, sugar and egg whites. Sour mix is a sad abomination of citric acid and corn syrup that can only fool someone who has never tasted the real thing. Aside from the difference that fresh fruit juice can make, the egg white makes the whole beverage rich and a little creamy. I’ve had only a couple in my life, and I was never able to order a “regular” whisky sour again afterward.

When the drink arrived, it was everything I could have hoped for. The whisky was present, neither overwhelmed by the flavors, nor hidden by them. The lemon and sugar balance was spot on, not too sweet at all, and the egg white froth made the whole thing perfect. These were not by any means cheap drinks, but they were very reasonably priced for the quality.

20160605_231929We stepped out onto the balcony between rounds and were treated to a wonderful city view and the pleasant summer night air. For my second, I chose the TBR (the Back Room) Mule. A twist on the Moscow Mule, it was made with ginger syrup (not just ginger ale) and came with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a rough stick of cinnamon bark that was charred briefly to activate the oils. It was served iced in a copper mug and had a light smokey smell from the cinnamon that was deep and savory along with the copper tang and hint of rosemary.

The whole experience was steeped in class and elegance. It’s definitely not a party bar, but I hope to go back there several more times while I live in Busan to continue sampling the amazing menu. There was a selection of tapas as well that we didn’t even start to get into, and if their food is anything as well selected and prepared as the drinks, I know it won’t be a disappointment. Sadly, my camera does not do well in dim lighting, so I don’t have an album to share, but you can check out their website here.


I know these posts make my life in Busan seem a bit like a non-stop party, but I do work at school every day for 8 hours a day. Most of the time my weeks are full of little kid smiles, English lessons, and binge watching shows on Netflix. Five or six days a week, I live a very normal life. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write a bit about that, what it’s like at school or where I go for regular dinner. However, the reason I choose to live and work in another country is to see and experience as much as I can. I know that there are interesting things and cool places in the US, in Seattle, but for some reason it’s so much harder to motivate myself out of a routine to explore them at “home”. I find that’s true no matter where a person is from. My Korean co-workers are amazed at how much I do here in Busan because they’ve lived here all their lives and just don’t think about the city as an adventure any more than you probably think of your hometown as one. It just goes to show, adventure can be anywhere; we just have to take ourselves out of the daily grind in order to see it.