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Posts Tagged ‘Korea’

“Your late twenties are all about coming to terms with your own mediocrity.”  So said my minutely older friend a few months ago, before resigning his body to the lulling heat of the green-tea bath, sliding out of sight beneath the water’s shimmering, yellow-green surface.  I wanted to object, to muster a bold retort.  I wanted to marshal an argument based on the conceptual fruits of perseverance, discipline, and hard work.  I wanted to wrestle a smidgen of realistic truth out from a tired, idealistic cliche, like “all your dreams are within your reach,” or something like that.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs.  This is the best I could find.

There are few good pictures of Korean Jjimjilbangs. This is the best I could find.

But of course, I didn’t (as my grammar makes abundantly clear).  I watched as my friend’s hair spread itself flat along the surface, as it danced cautiously, like seaweed, in the agitated waters of a Korean bathhouse (jjimjilbang).  I watched from my perch on the other end of the small pool; my arms spread wide, crucified to the tiled edge.  My lower torso bobbing weightlessly to the shooting time of two underwater jets.  My stomach exposed, naked.  The steam rising slowly through my sodden mass of chest hair.

I knew that any counter-argument would only amount to hot air and, in this case, quite literally.  Our education systems (both in the West and here in Korea) are structured so as to give off the plausibility of your being anything you want to be: combine hard work and perseverance with good grades and innate abilities and, presto (or is it abracadabra?), you’re halfway up the corporate ladder to a management position, or combing the ocean floor for new marine life, or blasting off to space, or what-have-you.  It’s not that this never happens.  Indeed, many of the people we idealize, whose biographies we keep repeating, seemed on-track for success at a very early age.  Lance Armstrong, for instance, was cycling far out to neighbouring towns at ten years of age and then calling home to be picked up, so of course he went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.  Or a nineteen year old Steven Spielberg, who skipped out of a tour of Universal Studies, retrofitted a closet into his “office”, and worked away on his first film, unnoticed, for some time before being found out (and subsequently hired on for his tenacity).   Since teaching in Korea, I’ve felt this strategy of hero-making a bit more acutely.  The textbooks I teach from are full of short bios on famous people, designed to inspire young students– and depress their aging teachers.

With no such immediately obvious trajectory to famous success, I’ve been developing a bit of a neurosis.  There is, here, an anxiousness to aging that I have not hitherto recognized.  There is an acute, looming sense of coming-up-short, of  having underachieved and, hence, squandered what “could have been.”  This neurosis is relatively minor (or, at least not maniacal– rest assured dear family, friends, and concerned readers).  It mostly consists of constantly, and almost unconsciously, comparing myself to whomever wrote what I am reading, directed what I am seeing, or spoke what I am hearing.  And it’s not an outright comparison either; it is simply noting each person’s date of birth and recognizing that they were a member of parliament at 32, or a published author at 27, or a first round draft pick at 18…etcetera, ad infinitum.

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms.  Photo by Jasonunbound

Bathing for hours is hard work, so you might consider falling asleep for a few more in the communal hot rooms. Photo by Jasonunbound

It was at this jjimjilbang and to my wizened and minutely older friend that I admitted to such unfair self-comparisons.  Incredibly, I found an ally (for misery loves company), someone with the same penchant for feelings of inadequacy before the cultural productions of the young and the brilliant.  It is fitting that our ensuing conversation occurred within numerous hot pools, saunas, and cold waterfalls, all of varying degrees of temperature; a body simply cannot help but feel old in a Korean jjimjilbang.   Perhaps it’s the rapidly pruning fingers and the absorption of so much water that makes one feel closer to death; or it’s the way in which six hours of bathing seems to call for a thousand years of sleep; or, at the very least, it’s the horrific amount of dead skin peeled off by scrubbing brushes at the sit-down shower stalls.

Whatever the case, it is the prospect of death, I think, which drives these ludicrous comparisons, which makes me horrified at the thought of ‘wasted time’.  I rarely read a book twice; I almost never see a movie a second time.  And it was nice to share a genuine laugh at our ridiculous notion of gazing out over the vast expanse of human artistic production and comparing ourselves to any one and all.  It was like an AA meeting for the washed up and old (yep, we’re almost 26 and 27 respectively)!  I know, intuitively, that such behaviour is destructively selfish.  For, what else is it but pure selfishness when you cannot see past the tip of your own nose to genuinely admire the accomplishments of another person?  Admittedly though, we did share a triumphant high-five, in the sea-salt sauna, I think, upon realizing that the quirky and brilliant Cohen Brothers, though youthful, are in fact in their early-fifties!

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

"Hey Geoffrey, come on! We need you!"

Anyway, I think this habit goes back a long way.  In elementary school, I used to envision the Ninja Turtles breaking through the cinderblock wall of my classroom and calling me away to an all-important battle against Shredder.  My dream never did pass beyond the gaping jaws of my classmates, who were clearly jealous that I was on the “in” with Donatello,  for that was all I wanted anyway, to be different and recognized and, well, cool.  Perhaps not much has changed.  I hope this all sounds rather more melodramatic than melancholic; it’s not that I’m an unhappy, dissatisfied person– much the opposite in fact.  It’s simply that in the face of others’ successes, I feel I must not waste anytime.  And this ticking clock (call it my biological clock) produces a measure of anxiety from time to time.   That’s all.  Besides, the comparisons are not all bad.  Two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail ran the headline “At 70, A Novelist Is Born, about Alan Bradley, a crime writer from Kelowna, B.C.;  though I will never be a crime writer, such stories do give me hope.  And maybe, too, I should stop reading Nietzsche (who, incidentally, was chair of philology at Basle University at twenty-four years of age).

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