Monday, September 27, 2010

Almost Famous

Old English majors never die; they just ramble on.

Fellow blogger and Female Nomad and Friends contributor, Maria Altobelli, conducted an interview of me in her blog, Mexico in Small Bytes.

My story in Female Nomads was about 4 pages. My original interview was about 6 pages, but it's been trimmed neatly down to size.

You can go to this interview by clicking the title ("Almost Famous") of this post.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Never Gonna Give You Up

Within the past six weeks, I’ve been stranded a week in Japan with no money (or rather, I had money, just no way to access it, which was even more frustrating); lost electricity in my apartment for almost a week following a lightning storm; was cornered by a would-be attacker; lost phone service for over a month because of ARC reasons; started a new job; lost a tooth; moved apartments twice; survived a typhoon (Ok, so I slept through the typhoon but it passed right through my area, smashing plate glass windows and uprooting large trees. I could have been crushed by one of those trees were I not such a sloth); and was kicked out of a restaurant for the sole offense of . . . drum roll . . . being white (the woman kicking me out actually called up someone on the phone to translate it for me). Do you know what all that means? It means I have the best diary ever!

I have to think back to my diary just a year or so ago. It was full of mundane observations, such as the time I saw the homeless man using his cardboard “Feed me” sign to shield his cell phone from public view as he texted on it.

Also, my previous diary contained more than one entry that related my daily commute from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti as I rode my $10 mountain bike – “The Nevermind”— through all sorts of foul Michigan weather. Dripping down the hallway after one particularly bad rainstorm I simply told anyone who inquired about my sopping state that I’d jumped off the Titanic and swum there.

My diary from one year ago also chronicled interesting executive-type experiences, such as the time an overseas VIP was scheduled to visit our offices. Apparently, the VIP was a stickler for “tidiness” in the workplace, rumors claiming he’d fired people for sins such as keeping a disorderly supply closet. I was told to hide all my paperwork, folders, books, pens, pencils, stapler, calculator, calendar, and office phone (phone!?) deep within the confines of my desk drawers. I truly hoped the phone would not ring while hidden in the drawer, as that would have been embarrassing. As the arrival time for the sovereign VIP grew imminent, my boss and I discovered (to our horror!) that the company coat closet was full, so we crawled under our respective desks to hide our coats under our wastepaper baskets. So inspiring was the office-wide terror about the VIP's impending visit that had the wastepaper basket been large enough, I would have crawled under it myself.

Ok, so those diary events have a certain amount of retrospective amusement about them, but most of the entries inbetween them formed what can be loosely described as a foodie log focusing on the various types of chocolate I consumed on any given day and my reactions to it. (“Cinnamon chocolate. Mmm.” “Curry chocolate. Bleck!”) And more often than not, there weren’t even any written words, just greedy little fingerprints in cocoa smudging the pages, providing proof that I was still alive and also making it very easy to track me should I engage in any future criminal activity, such as, say, holding up a Godiva factory or hijacking a Little Debbie Truck.

A year and some weeks later, I now sit proudly at a brand-new cubicle! One where the phone is allowed on the desk, though my new workplace has kindly requested I not plug it in less it disturb people by ringing. Now is the time I was originally slated to leave for my RTW trip. I’ve worked in Korea and successfully finished my original one-year contract with “ivy league” Yonsei University, receiving the generous year-end bonus all Korean companies provide to their foreign employees. Now is the time when I should be loading up my rucksack and moving forward into the world.

After a series of unfortunate events, such as listed in the first paragraph, the average person would probably call quits on Korea and move forward as planned. Know what I call those people? Smart. They are smart, smart people who know when to give up. These people also probably understand that living more than one year in the world’s most precarious nuclear hotspot is, in fact, not smart. But that’s where I come in. These people have smart as their primary strength. Me, I have stubborn. Sure, the world may be filled with people who are smarter, stronger, and own more powerful weapons of mass destruction than me, but I have Olympic-level ability in stubbornness. And sure, the aforementioned series of unfortunate events may have driven me to the sort of desperate edge wherein a person in a position such as myself might shout, while on a public sidewalk, “You think you can beat me down, world? You think you can make me cry? Go on, try it!” (Such a public outburst worked to create a nice bit of space between me and everyone else nearby, which made for a refreshing change since Seoul is possibly the world’s most populated city and, generally speaking, there are at least three strangers in close bodily contact with me at all times – an intimacy which can double in number during subway rush hour!) Err, theoretically, I mean. All this is theoretical, except for the question asking the world if it thinks it can make me cry. That is a rhetorical question, by which I mean I would prefer the world not to answer.

Sure, I'm having a rough time right now, but this, too, will pass. And what’s more, in spite of everything, I still like Korea and I like my new job as a full-time editor. So, it’s one more year in Korea for me. One more year of doing the editing I enjoy all day and doing the dancing I love all night. One more year with the friends to whom I grow closer every time I see them. One more year eating fresh, delicious, cheap restaurant food. One more year replacing all the necessities of life with their cute counterparts. (Are the slots on your slotted spoon in the shape of a winky face? Is your toothbrush holder in the shape of a little piggy? Is your winter hat adorned with kitten ears?)

This has been a disasterous couple of months for me, true, but I'm not going to let it defeat me. I will rise up, every time.

(Exulting in Korea's adventures or readying myself to leap off the edge? Either way, wish me luck in exploring the infinite abyss.)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Swing Out in Seoul

Swing Out in Seoul
by Melanie Ehler

As an expat in Seoul, part of what drew me to this city was its exciting social aspect, its dizzying array of clubs and bars, the ability to dance all night and hang out with large groups of people. You too? Well, I'm willing to wager: my Seoul nightlife is nothing like yours.

“BK, how many days has it been?” I ask the Korean guy standing across from me. He grins widely at me, like always. BK has about a thousand teeth and he shows all of them in his smile.

“I dunno,” he replies. “I lost count a couple weeks ago.”

By my own estimation, based on the number he presented to me last month, BK must have been dancing over 100 days at this point. More than 100 days of dancing in a row. While my remark about the number of BK's teeth is hyperbole, my calculation of his dancing days is closer to exact. (I recently e-mailed BK about this. With the ultimate goal of dancing 200 days straight, he eventually had to stop at day 155, after a cold – and most likely exhaustion – claimed him.)

Personally, I am not quite as intense as BK, but I still go out dancing about five or six nights a week, alternating bars depending on my mood, location, and the crowd I can predict will be there. Only these are not the typical hoist-a-bottle-of-Cass-over-your-head-while-you're-gyrating type bars. These are swing bars. The patrons here do the lindy hop, the jitterbug, the Charleston, the east coast, the west coast, the balboa, the blues, old-fashioned dances with old-fashioned names that emerged primarily from the 1930s and 40s. But swing dancing contains a vitality that has not lessened over the years. Unlike ballroom, with its upright formality and sometimes strict regulations, lindy hop is a partnered street dance, brought to the general public’s attention by the fabulously talented ghetto kids of New York as they performed their moves in the Savoy ballroom. Creativity remains a highly prized element of the dance: lindy hop can extend beyond just the basic steps, as innovative dancers are constantly adding new styling and creating new moves to add to the basic forms.

Me, I've been swing dancing for over a decade, ever since Jump, Jive, n’ Wail played on a Gap commercial in 1998, an advertisement that was pivotal, if not in selling khakis, then in reintroducing swing dancing to the American scene. I have traveled throughout North America just for the chance to dance swing in different cities, states, and provinces: San Francisco for playful groove; St. Louis for sultry blues; Cleveland for smooth bal, Asheville for flying lindy; Toronto for Sunday morning gospel sessions; Ann Arbor and Detroit for Motown; Honolulu for, well, dancing on the beach; and so on.


No other single city I have encountered offers the sheer number of venues (15), the overwhelming turnout of dancers, or even the consistently high level of dancing as does Seoul. Even though the swing scene in Seoul did not receive widespread popularity until about 3 years, most Korean dancers are so intent on improvement and so dedicated to practicing that their skill levels advance with astonishing rapidity. Before moving to Seoul, I’d heard rumors that is was “lindy hop heaven.” These rumors acted as a big incentive in my decision to move to Korea, and the truth behind them is what keeps me here a second year.

That is not to say the swing dance scene is altogether perfect. Quite frankly, I had difficulty fitting in at first. Many of the clubs were – and possibly still are – unused to foreigners. For many months, I was the only foreigner to frequent the Boogie Woogie Club in Sillim. Then suddenly, an Irish girl named Eimir began swing dancing and showed up at the same club. A Korean girl – whose nickname is something like Bam Bam Cheeks – saw the two of us standing together one night and observed, “You know, we didn’t use to get any foreigners at all in Boogie Woogie. Now we’re just packing them in here.”

Eimir and I looked at each other in bemused silence. After Bam Bam Cheeks had left, I told Eimir, “Well, in all fairness, the foreigners have doubled in number since your arrival.”

The obvious upside to this situation is that through dancing, I have been able to meet, and eventually become friends with, a number of Korean dancers. I’ve shared sensitive and complex dances, full of personal expression, with men with whom I cannot otherwise communicate. I danced with one guy several times a week for 6 months or so in complete silence, under the assumption we couldn’t speak the same language, when suddenly he burst into casual conversation in a tone that implied we’ve been friends for ages. It turns out his English speaking skills are just fine; shyness was the problem. I’ve gone to a retreat in the mountains with one group of my new dance friends and a retreat on an island with another group. I’ve danced around campfires, played games without understanding any of the rules, been invited out to eat, and out to drink. When it comes down to it, swing dancing in Korea is an amazing social opportunity.

What I’m trying to say is that if you want to learn a new hobby or even if your motivation is simply to escape the mini-America of Itaewon, swing dancing in Korea is perfect. Check out these websites for more specific information about the days and locations. If you’re based anywhere in Seoul, there’s bound to be a swing bar somewhere nearby. Just remember to go early! Except for the case of special events, dances typically run between 8:00 pm and midnight.

And here’s a final tip: If standing out as the sole waygook is too intimidating, I suggest you start your dancing experience by checking out the Big Apple Club on any Monday night. Of the 100 or so dancers in attendance, there should be between 3 to 7 expats. Trust me, this is the largest contingency of foreigners you will probably ever find in Korea’s swing scene. And eventually, of course, if you visit enough swing bars, you’re bound to run into me.


Melanie pretends to be part of the literati, but, in truth, just reads refrigerator magnets and quotes them at appropriate intervals. To read her personal, Seoul-based blog with updates that can best be described as “lackadaisical,” check out

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