Monday, April 21, 2014

upcoming jaunts in 2014

Good morning, hangers-on! And ain't it a fine April day? The sun is shining, the kkachi (magpies) are screeching love songs, the yellow dust is nearly gone, one of my students told me I've lost weight and I'm almost over the 24-hour bug I caught. Time to plan some trips.



So I went through the Korean calendar and I found out that 2014 is the year of three-day weekends. Here's a list I compiled of holidays (and the potential trips which might accompany them). I might not be traveling overseas for every little break I've got here, but it's intoxicating to contemplate the possibilities. So here you go:

1. May 3-7 (Children’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday): nothing planned, as it's probably too late; though I might see if there's a last-minute deal for Taiwan or something, just for me. I have five days, but Miss H and Miss J have four. Ha-ha. [blows raspberry]

2. June 6-8 (Memorial Day): Miss H and I were thinking about Jeju Island. We need to jump on the web tonight and book tickets NOW, though.

3. July 12-August 10 (my summer vacation): my big trip. I've shelved Mongolia for the moment, as it seems all the good stuff there is really far apart and requires guides and prepaid tours to access. I'll have to save that for later. But I'm still going to do Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and whatever country Miss H and I decide to visit for...

4. August 2-10 (Miss H's summer vacation): she and I still need to work this out. And fast. Hong Kong might be too small to sustain a week-long trip, so we're thinking Japan—Kyushu and southern Honshu. We could see Miyajima (its sacred torii gate which seems to float upon the water at high tide); Kyoto; Nara (Japan's ancient capital); Hiroshima; Nagasaki; Kagoshima (known as "the Naples of Japan" for its smoking volcano, tropical climate and hot-tempered locals) and other stuff. Yeah, I like that idea. Maybe we could even visit a hot spring and Miss H could sample her first capsule hotel. It'll be my third trip to Japan, but there's still so much I haven't seen.

5. August 15-17 (Liberation Day): another three-day weekend. Might have to be used for a rest period, understandably. But if Miss J's summer vacation lines up with it...that's a different story. Hong Kong anyone?

6. September 6-9 (Chuseok): four days. Always tricky to travel over Chuseok, as that's precisely what the other umpteen million Koreans (and a lot of Chinese folks as well) are doing. But we'll figure it out. Someplace tropical, we're thinking.

7. October 3-5 (National Foundation Day): another three-day weekend.

8. February 18-22 (Seolnar): a full five days! We gotta do something! 

After February 2015, of course, Miss H and I will head back to the U.S.A. (most likely Las Vegas or Tuscon), settle down, and embark upon our careers and family lives. I won't hang up my travelin' boots, though. I hope to pull in enough money from my writing to take time off and globe-trot some more. Miss H and I still haven't seen Europe, and I've got some trekking in South America and some safariing in Africa to do yet. I still need to ride trains through Canada and Australia and Russia and India, too.

But this'll do for right now.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

the wreck of the Sewol

Well, your TV and news sites are probably teeming with stories about South Korea right now. I wish there was a happier reason for it than the sinking of the Sewol, a large Japanese-built ferryboat hauling nearly 500 people, which sank in the western fringes of the Korea Strait on its way from Incheon to Jeju Island.

                                                                                                      Yonhap News

You're probably familiar with the specifics. Just a few minutes before 9:00 a.m. the passengers on the ship heard a loud bang and the ship started to list severely. A distress signal was sent at 8:55 a.m. The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok (who was recently arrested), failed to issue any sort of evacuation order for a critical 30 minutes, at 9:30 a.m. The ship sank further, rolling over and becoming almost completely submerged by noon, with only the bow remaining above water by 2:00 p.m. The ship in its entirety has since sunk and settled on the bottom 90 meters below the surface. 


Horrifying, heartrending and heroic stories have risen from this disaster. Twenty-nine people are confirmed dead, 174 have been rescued and 239 remain missing. It's a well-known fact that 300 of the 476-odd people aboard were young students from an Ansan high school. (In an earlier draft of this post I wrote Incheon, but I was in error.) One of the crew is rumored to have lost her life ensuring that all passengers had their life jackets. Heartbreaking tales of the students texting their parents and relatives from the wreck on the bottom of the ocean have populated the web. 

Controversy is among the most prominent survivors of the Sewol wreck. Two at the moment are occupying my attention, and they are both mentioned in that link I posted up there about Captain Lee being arrested. The first is Lee's refusal to issue an evacuation order for a full 30 minutes, which has rightly come under harsh scrutiny and criticism; and that the helmsman, Cho Joon-ki (also arrested) made a "sharp turn" just before the bang was heard. He admitted that he was "familiar" with the operation of the helm, but that the wheel "turned farther than expected." This has led to speculation that the turn was too sharp, dislodging some of the containers in the hold and perhaps compromising the integrity of the hull, leading to the sinking. Other parties maintain that a hidden rock was to blame, but that doesn't make sense to me. Ferries have been traveling up and down that same route for decades. If there was a rock, surely it would have been detected by now? 

It seems that, as is commonly the case, human error is to blame for the horrific loss of human life. The ship's authority figures failed to act in a sagacious manner, trapping hundreds of innocents in the wreck of the vessel. 

To many abroad and in the West, this may seem like "just another disaster." Another captain asleep at the wheel, like the Costa Concordia in 2012. But it's more than that, folks. This catastrophe has shaken South Korea right down to its roots. Many of my students at Sejong University are tremendously disturbed, not just by the deaths of so many young ones but the accompanying implications. 

What implications, you ask? 

I've explained before that Korea has a strong Confucian mindset. This has been the case since the Joseon era (1392-1910), when Neo-Confucianism came to dominate the Korean court and both Buddhists and Christians were severely repressed. One of the fundamental tenets of Confucianism is unflinching obedience to one's elders and betters. Korea and China, during their medieval days, had rigid hierarchical societies. Things like birth, wealth, occupation, and even surname determined one's position in the caste system. When confronted with a member of a higher echelon, one must show them the greatest respect. To do anything else would be to violate sacred societal mores and traditions. It goes without saying that children must obey their parents and grandparents as a lowly foot soldier would obey a general. 

And that's precisely what the children aboard the Sewol did. They wanted to evacuate, to leap off the ship into the cold grey seas and swim for their lives, but Captain Lee, their elder and better—whose mind was paralyzed with fears that his passengers would drift away and be lost in the turbulent waters—ordered them to stay put. So stay put they did, in the cabins and corridors. And there they remain. 

Needless to say, many minds in Korea—particularly the younger ones—are beginning to call this whole Confucian system into question. This disaster has highlighted its fundamental weakness: what if the authority figures in question are pure-D wrong? There's little point in unquestioningly following a leader if he or she hasn't got the brains of an ice cube. Many Japanese samurai might disagree, but this isn't the Warring States Period, guys. This is the 21st century. And now, young folks across the Korean peninsula are wondering whether the Confucian ideal is, well...ideal anymore. One of my students, normally chipper and articulate but grave and hesitant when I spoke with him, told me that he couldn't really process the whole affair. 

"I love my country," he said. "I believe in Korea. But this disaster has made me question everything." 

Everyone feels that way, partner. My fiancée, a die-hard Titanic buff, has been quiet and subdued the past few days, shocked to the core that a major maritime disaster such as the Sewol sinking can still happen in this day and age. I must confess that it all seems a bit surreal to me. It's hard to believe that only a few hundred kilometers from where I sit, down in the muck at the bottom of the Korea Strait, sits a capsized ship filled with hundreds of people who may very well be siblings or relatives of the twentysomethings I teach. 

My thoughts and prayers are with them. May justice be served to those at fault. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

fiction vs. science fiction

On Friday I spoke to my mother on the phone for the first time in four months. We're not estranged or anything; far from it. I'm just a horrible son, even when you don't apply the Confucian lens. We talked around Christmastime and...well, the time just slipped away. Life intervened. The trip to Sapporo, the move to Gangnam, and all that jazz. It's hard for me to remember that I have to contact her; she has no way of contacting me (I call my parents via Skype, but they have a land line).

Anyway, Mum said something interesting, as she always does. We were discussing my younger brother, a young actor in Hollywood searching for his big break, and how a big-name studio asked him and his crew to do a short film. You can catch some snippets of it here, if you don't mind strong language. (He's on IMDB, too.) That dark-haired fellow with the Mel Gibson looks and the chip on his shoulder and the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about expression on his face is who I grew up with, folks. 

Anyway, I finally managed to inform my mum that I've submitted my first novel to Penguin Books, and am awaiting a reply. Among the many pithy observations she made was that my brother and I have both chosen extremely tough and competitive careers, and we are both on the threshold of success (she's great with the encouraging comments). It gave me pause. She was right in more ways than she knew. Not only have I decided to make my name in fiction, but science fiction to boot. The requirements of the genre are a bit more stringent than mainstream fiction. I don't mean to imply that mainstream fiction is a cakewalk or anything like that. Not at all. To be a writer in any genre requires patience, skill, practice, a certain degree of natural talent, patience, confidence, dedication, and hard work (especially the last one). It's not much different from being an actor in that respect. That was my mum's whole point. 

But to be a sci-fi writer you need all that and more, I've realized. First, you have to understand the fundamental ways in which technology, science and progress affect human lives. You have to see the human story behind the inhuman gadgets and gizmos. You must march to the same fife as a mainstream fiction writer by composing a compelling story, a tale of ordinary human (or inhuman) beings in challenging situations, relatable characters with the same age-old problems, seasoning the tale with conflict and drama and triumph and failure and character development, not forgetting correct pacing and florid language and all the other ingredients which fiction is heir to; but that ain't all. Into the fabric of fiction you must weave the scintillating threads of the fantastic. You must wed your human story to the extraordinary technology of the future, the advanced science of impending ages, the limitless world of wonder that lies beyond the borders of imagination. One e-zine I've submitted to won't even consider a manuscript unless it's "a good character-driven story wherein the technology is so vital to the plot that the narrative would be indelibly altered were it absent." 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I consistently fail to do. 

Writing is like herding cats. Staying on top of what every good story needs—plot, pacing, vivid characters, sizzling prose, universal mores—while trying to throw in the novel aspects of science fiction like mind-blowing tech and aliens and starships and whatnot is...challenging. It's rather like trying to cook a four-course dinner. You're boiling the pasta and stirring the sauce and grating the cheese and pounding the breadcrumbs, and just as finish you realize that you've let the mushrooms (which were supposed to be lightly sautéed) burn to ashes in the skillet. Despite your best efforts, the meal leaves a carcinogenic taste in the mouth of anyone who eats it. That, apparently, is what my stories are doing to the editors at Asimov's, Analog, and Daily Science Fiction. I haven't sold a story yet. 

But at least I know what I'm doing wrong. The trick is that happy marriage of the unreal and imaginary to the tried-and-true fictive formula. I haven't had much success combining memorable characters, fantastic settings, incredible technology and a classic plot into one single story, but I'm getting better. Like anything else, all it takes is practice. You have to get a feel for it, and I can feel that I'm getting a feel for it. Enough to realize that some stories need to be aborted before I waste time and energy on them (such as the idea I had while shopping with Miss H last weekend, "Incheon Airport Post-Rapture"ha!). 

I can write good stories, and I can dream up good sci-fi concepts, but getting the two to merge in my brain and slide all the way down through my arms and fingers to the keyboard is another matter. 

Tomorrow is Wednesday, my day off. I'll see what I can do about it then. Wish me luck.