Like any major decision in life, it’s a complex mix of things, some of which I won’t talk about here, but I thought I’d say a little about it anyway. For one thing, life on tourist visas with short-term health insurance policies (I can only get six months at a time these days) was growing increasingly untenable. (My health’s fine, I’ve actually lost plenty of weight and adopted some healthier habits, but having only a six month window on health insurance is a pain, really, and so is being constantly on a tourist visa.)
Saigon was good to us–for the most part, at least, and especially in 2014, and was a good base for our visits to Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore actually interested us as a relocation destination, but, for one thing, Seoul seemed a better choice. Here are some reasons:
1. It’s the likeliest place for us both to find decent work. My credentials and background university teaching here is a big leg up… which helps explain the timing: it’s harder to get a university position from overseas, even with great references, an outstanding CV, and lots of experience… and we realized that the hiring for next semester would be getting into full swing in late December, so we decided to move up the date from what we’d originally planned. (We’d been shooting to arrive in mid-January, which, well… that would have been kind of late.) Also, adjusting to working full time would be easier with a familiar setting and dynamics,and Mrs. Jiwaku would have a lot better chance of finding some kind of work related to media or filmmaking in Korea, given how miniscule (and controlled) the industry is in Vietnam.
2. We figured if we were in Korea, there were some, er, things we could sort out. For one thing, we have a lot of stuff in storage here. Likewise, Jihyun has some legal paperwork she needs to get sorted out in order to avoid long-term issues, and it’s the kind of thing that can only really be sorted out in-country. So, coming here was handy in a few ways all at once.
3. The two places we know about that are really strong work destinations in East Asia–especially for TEFL–are Vietnam and Korea, and we had felt we’d been in Vietnam about the right amount of time: still liking the place, but starting to see clearly the things we didn’t like without being really grouchy about it yet. We were ready to leave, while we were still about to smile about it all. Also, the pay in Korea is better, at least if you can find a proper university job — which is what I’m aiming for.
4. We were finding diminished returns on writing “uninterrupted” by full time work. For the record, I wrote about 150,000 words of what’s either a massive novel or a trilogy, and rewrote about 25,000 words of a second novel that has become the main project in progress now. I wasn’t unproductive, but I was also finding it harder and harder to be productive while feeling stalled in the same apartment, in the same city, and without much stimulus from outside the house except the same few students we tutored part-time.
Some people also are surprised because, well, if you’ve read my blog, you know that by the time we left Korea, I was very ready to leave. The thing is, our stay in Saigon somewhat helped me let off some of the steam built up over the years, and besides, we realized how much a change in neighborhood and living circumstances can change perspective. When we lived in District 1–scooter-filled, loud, busy Saigon–we didn’t like the neighborhood at all, and the living situation (shared house with friends with whom we turned out to be deeply, or actually fundamentally, incompatible in many ways) didn’t help much. Once we relocated to Nhà Bè, on the edge of District 7–a quieter area far from the city center–we were quite a lot happier. Which is to say what I’ve already said before: a lot of my problems in Korea were related to being stuck in Yeokgok, along with being trapped on Line 1, for seven years straight.
(Therefore, we need to exert a little more control over our living situation, and choose a neighborhood that agrees better with us. We’ll see if we can pull off that trick: I certainly hope so, at least.)
In any case, the last couple of weeks or so were kind of a whirlwind of packing and sorting things out, meeting the wonderful Chris Azure and his family one more time, and sorting out job applications from overseas, which is no small fear, let me tell you! Still, our last day in Saigon was kind of magical: we had some good phở for lunch, got an impromptu lesson in coffee-bean roasting from a Korean Dutch Coffee shop owner in Phu My Hung, ate at one of our favorite places in the city (Scott & Binh’s), and then a final whirlwind packing session and off to the airport.
As for the flight, I’ll just say that nobody should be flying China Eastern or China Southern Airlines. Sure, our plane didn’t crash like Air Asia did that day, but as a commercial service, I think not crashing is kind of, well, a pretty low standard. Both of these airlines offer a very bad experience. We took the former on the way down to Vietnam, and the latter on the way back, and while their glaring flaws and horrors differ in some respects, there’s enough in common between the two that I can say, without reservation, that the extra hundred bucks to fly a better airline is totally worth it. Also, never go to Guangzhou Airport if you can help it, not even for a (supposedly) three-hour stopover. Trust me on this. (Pudong Airport is also badly bottlenecked for no apparent reason, and basically a site of highway robbery beyond even normal airport highway robbery, but at least it’s heated, and you don’t end up being a hostage of an airline that delays flights endlessly, like, for almost half a day.)
Oh, and one observation: the airports I’ve visited that have most energetically adopted the whole of America’s security theater procedures are all in highly authoritarian (and often highly corrupted) states. Vietnam, and Indonesia, come to mind. (China too, in terms of authoritarianism: I don’t know how corrupt Chinese airport security is these days, but the authoritarianism maps.) Whether the multiple layers of security are necessitated by the corruption, or by perceived dysfunction of other authoritarian states’ spread-too-thin overreaching security systems, I don’t know… but I haven’t been asked to remove my belt and my shoes in ages, and when did I have to do it?
In Pudong airport, right after stepping off a plane I’d entered only after having my bags and person scanned twice already, after being rushed to the head of a line for a flight I was transferring to catch, because the transfer passenger checkpoint was a massive bottleneck in permanent crisis management mode.
Anyway, we’re in Seoul now, subletting a place till near the end of February, when we hopefully will both have jobs and, dare I hope, a place to move to.It’s actually nice to be back, or nicer, at least, than I expected, though Seoul’s cold… well, not really, but after a few years in the tropics, your internal thermometer recalibrates.
The next few weeks, and especially the next week, will be a real whirlwind, but soon things will calm down, I think. I hope! Social meetings will have to wait a bit. The job application and interviewing process is time-consuming, mainly because in South Korea, employers don’t assume applicants can create a decent CV of their own… so they require everyone to fill out lengthy application forms, asking for excessively specific details (on what day in May 1998 did you graduate from your BA program?) and they serve up the forms in formats that aren’t designed for computer input, since Koreans mostly just handwrite the forms. And those forms are also mostly created in nonstandard word processing software (especially Korea’s favorite, Haansoft Hangul). I’ve had two application forms so crufted junk data added in file conversion that they actually crashed my (healthy, two-year-old) MacBook, and plenty more that required me to change the language settings manually every time I clicked on a new field in the form, so I could enter text in English. In an all-English form.
And that’s to say nothing of the interviews, though I’ll save those stories–the amusing ones, anyway–for another day.
The long and the short of it? We’re in Seoul. Oh, and I’m in the market for a baritone sax–useful for a music project I want to try launch this spring–but don’t exactly have the cash for one till I’m hired and we have an apartment. Which makes me sad because there’s a good horn available at a good price in Seoul right now, and I can’t just go and buy it, and it might be another year before one like this comes onto the market again.
But we have other fish to deep fry first. And, anyway, if I get hired at the place I’m hoping to get hired, I might be able to buy a B♭ Bass Sax (Jinbao model, which seems to have gotten a ton of positive reviews, and isn’t that expensive via Wessex Tubas, in the US) instead. (Somehow, they charge a lot more at the factory, though maybe if I contact them it’ll be cheaper to visit Tianjin, buy a demo model, and carry it back to Korea directly.) I’d really prefer a bass sax to an E♭ Baritone anyway.
Chances are this horn will weigh more than my wife does. But I haven’t just gone deranged: there’s a reason why I’m looking into it… a music project I’d like to start in the spring or the summer, with a very interesting angle. If I can get some bari or bass sax, that is. (I prefer bass since it’s in B♭, like my tenor, instead of in E♭, a tuning I’m not really accustomed to. But I’ll settle for a quality bari if I can get one. I’ll be good to play some live music again.
Ha, well, till I have a job all of that is just speculative fiction anyway. But even in the last week some decent gigs have opened up, so… you never know!
As for my writing… ça va, ça va. Well, not lately… job hunting is pretty busy work, and moving from one country to another is too. But it was progressing well, and I hope to get back to it soon. When I land a contract, we’ll sort out housing, get stuff out of storage, and I’ll plan classes for the first half of the spring semester… and then I’m back to the novel project, with a vengeance.
A former student emailed me, asking–among other things–for advice about things to enjoy during her upcoming visit to Montréal. One of the things I suggested was to visit the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, and I couldn’t help but mention my favorite painting there, which, unsurprisingly, is of a teacher. Here it is:
I know, hopelessly old-fashioned of me. I like more modern artists too, believe me! Kandinsky! Dali! Escher! Er… look, among my bundle of posters–now in storage in a warehouse someplace in Koream waiting to be shipped to me eventually–are at least a few prints much more avant-garde and challenging than this one, and that’s to say nothing of the prints long-lost when I left Montreal–especially all the Dali I had on my walls.
Still, when ask myself what my favorite painting is, I know my answer should be as it is for books: there are too many wonderful ones for me to pick just one, and there are. I’ve seen haystacks that were gorgeous, I’ve seen assemblages that fascinated me but looked like nothing in this world… and yet I can’t help but think of this one, even though I haven’t seen it in many years.
I don’t even know who Strozzi is, or whether I like his other work. But this painting, for me, sums up everything wonderful about teaching, about learning, about studying, and about the sacredness of places of learning: the shared excitement, the attention to some detail, the love of books, and the importance of the world to one’s studies. It reminds me of the first time my parents took me to a library, and I saw all… those… books! And then, I was told to find some that I wanted to borrow!
Eratosthenes is famed for all kinds of discoveries in a number of fields: he calculated (with surprising accuracy) the circumference of the Earth and the tilt of its axis (which is why there is a globe of the Earth pictured beside his pupil, who holds a compass in his hands); he invented a “sieve” in mathematics used to find prime numbers; he studied astronomy, music theory, and geography–inventing much of the terminology used in geography today, even. He refused to specialize, and he also became the chief librarian at Alexandria.
Notably, his critics called him Beta (implying that he was a perpetual second-place runner in every field). However, those who thought highly of his achievements–achievements at least as formidable as any of his critics, note–instead called him Pentathlos (because, like a pentathlete at the Olympics, he demonstrated knowledge in every field).
Not that I knew any of that when I sat staring at the painting. For me, it was all just a perfect encapsulation of how I felt then about teaching and learning and books and knowledge: that thing that is so crucial to all that human beings have achieved–that sense of wonder that led to the questions and observations that, ultimately, built a world where you are reading this on a screen far distant to the one upon which I am writing this.
— Derek Brown (@derekbrown) September 6, 2013
Ha, funnily enough, I submitted this a long, long time ago, and forgot all about it.
But for all that, the principle seems to hold. In the past couple of weeks, since relocating to our new apartment, I’ve:
- started exercising regularly (that is, swimming daily, and tracking it on Fitocracy, because gamification = motivation boost; I’ll be adding a regimen of bodyweight exercises next week, too),
- drafted close to 10% of the novel I’m working on (I should hit 10% tonight, and am hoping to increase my daily output to 1,500 or 2,000 words this week),
- drafted a complete short story, and started another,
- finished reading two books, with two more likely to get polished off in the next couple of days,
- started editing the final script of our current film-in-production, an adaptation of Djuna’s novella “Proxy War.” (Which, when this post goes up, is what I will go an work on immediately.)
That’s not bad for a mere couple of weeks, especially when you add in the fact that I have only missed two days of saxophone practice since we moved! Oh, and I suppose I should include my latest musical recording: a rendering of Kenny Dorham’s jazz standard, “Blue Bossa”:
(And yes, the image for that track is shot from my visit to Fatehpur Sikri, one of my favorite places from my trip around Northern India during winter 2004.)
I probably wouldn’t have gone ahead with that tune, since it was one of the first I learned when I started studying jazz (more than two decades ago, now), but I’ve continued working on jazz tunes with a cohort of people from my online jazz improv class that just wrapped up. This week’s tune is a lot tougher, though.
I do have other stuff I need to do, and haven’t been doing, but I figure, adding one thing at a time to the regimen seems to be working well, so I’ll stick to that approach.
Oh, also, for all the people who are my “Friends” on Facebook: last night I discovered that for some reason, my Facebook updates were only being shared directly with one person, a specific friend of mine. Anything via Twitter was shared to all my friends, but direct status updates only went to this one guy, and I’m not sure how that happened, but I’ve got back and fixed it. If you feel like you may have missed something interesting–and I’m pretty sure you did–feel free to go trawl my Page.
But among the things he discussed in the book was the neurobiology of break-ups, and why they are so difficult. I can’t quote the book, or even paraphrase it in any way I’d regard as trustworthy–my copy is somewhere in that other galaxy where I read it, in a box, floating in the void probably–but my memory of it is basically that human identity works in a way that is unavoidably symbiotic because of our natural gregariousness: who we are is in part defined by our relationships, and thus losing someone significant to us (whether by death or by break-up) results in an experience of the fragmentation of the self around the hole in the self left behind by the loss. One is left with the question, Who am I without this other person?
Well, while things are fine between my wife and I, my suspicion is that this symbiosis of identity works not only through relationships we have with individuals, but also relationships we have with places.
Who am I outside of Korea? is a question I’ve been wrestling, under the hood… that is, beneath the level of conscious consideration. I’m not sitting around asking myself this, so much as experiencing it as a sort of distress, an unease. It’s not an easy question to answer: I find myself walking around with some of those frustrations still bright and blooming, just beneath the surface, and the the slightest mention of the place gets me going.
Not that I miss Korea. Leaving has been, as Mrs. Jiwaku has pointed out, immensely positive for both of us. But even this far away, my various frustrations sorrows, worries, and angers haven’t evaporated away. I’m not there anymore, and it’s sort of unnecessary for me to carry them… yet they remain. But who am I here, wherever here is when it’s not-Korea?
I think it’d maybe be easier if I had a conventional day job, though part of the reason we came here was to have a break from the distractions and pressures of day jobs. Maybe it’s be easier, too, if I were finding Vietnam as miserable as I found my day-to-day experience of Korea. (I’d be able to just transfer my annoyances and frustration over without much work.) However, by comparison, things here in Ho Chi Minh City just seem so much healthier, so much more balanced and sane, even with the occasional insanities that are inevitable in any place.
Of course, I’ve been here two months now, my life is not woven together with the lives of any Vietnamese people, and I have dealt with some pretty frustrating things. But I don’t see a city shrouded in the constant gloom and misery it took my mother two minutes on the Seoul subway (Line 1, yes) to notice. I see kids playing outdoors in the park at night, and couples–adult couples with jobs and lives–taking dancing lessons in the same park. Ho Chi Minh City isn’t perfect, but what I see when I look around is a saner and generally a happier place than Seoul from what I can tell. People here actually smile at one another… and the fact that is some kind of shocking evidence for something tells you everything you need to know about what Seoul was like for me…
But the question of who I am in this place, and I suppose, the question of what happened to who I was in Korea, remains, and there’s a certain degree of doldrums inevitable in working through all that. So that’s one of the demons I’ve been wrestling more layers to this, at least as far as I can tell.
The second layer should serve as a warning to anyone who is picking up a musical instrument after a long time away from it… especially if they walked away from the instrument, or from music altogether, under difficult or painful circumstances.
I’ve heard of people talk about how, when they lose weight, all kinds of emotions flood them–as if the feelings of the past, or maybe the chemicals that bring about those emotions in the brain–were stored in the fat, like toxins, and that losing weight suddenly releases them back out into a person. I don’t know about that, though it sounds pretty suspect: I’d imagine losing weight is one cause for a flood of emotions in and of itself for a lot of the people who report such things.
Still, there’s something to this on some level, maybe. Musicians talk a lot about muscle memory, but memory is complex. I remember reading about some people in the ancient Near East someplace who used to wear a series of rings and use them as mnemonic tools, to memorize long texts or formulae. The brain is complex enough that we can crosswire memories with gestures, with postures or movements. And playing a musical instrument is very physical, very visceral: you’re blowing your own breath through it, pushing keys or swinging sticks with your hands, using the power of your body to make sounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if playing scales that you played decades before, and engaging in breathing routines you used to, and using that posture, and so on–things you did many times before, under far different circumstances–can bring about vivid recollections of an abstract, emotional nature. And sadly, both times I walked away from the sax, it was as much for reasons of personal relationships failing as it was overmusical frustration. The last time, especially, I walked away from a band bitter over personal issues that went very, very deep.
Up on that roof, playing through the scales, I think some of that sort of seeped out of my bones, my sinews, and the memories shaded my perceptions of the present in a way. And then there was the broiling heat of the roof terrace, and the struggle of rebuilding my saxophone playing from not quite nothing, but from a state of disrepair that is a bit disheartening. All together? Not fun.
And there’s that other side to it: I’m like a lot of musicians I know, very hard on myself about where I’m at musically–even more so since the time off is something I’m working off now, in what feels sometimes like a Purgatorial sense. I shouldn’t have left the sax sitting unplayed, but I did. Never mind that I was doing other things, like jumpstarting a writing career: that’s cool, but it doesn’t make me a better player up on that hot roof, working through lead sheets I once, long ago, used to have memorized.
And speaking of writing, that’s the other thing that’s been dogging me lately. It’s the terror of scaling Olympus.
Which is to say: I know the time has come for me to try to write a novel, and I want to do so, and career wise it’s a good idea, and anyway I have like a dozen good ideas for novels sitting waiting to get used up, I quit my job to come and live off savings (and occasional side gigs) so that I could give it a shot. And yet, I’m kind of paralyzed by fear. Novels are huge. They’re difficult, and challenging, and a different kind of writing than I’ve managed to do successfully so far. I have to learn how to do it, and that’s rightfully terrifying on some level. I know this from experience, as I’ve drafted three or four novels in the past, each of them to some degree a rather abject failure.
I know, I know, maybe I shouldn’t be terrified, or shouldn’t let the terror hold me back from doing it anyway, but that’s easier said than done. Maybe it’s my age: I’ll be forty in less than a year, and feel like I’ve achieved less than I expected of myself. (Coming to terms with why doesn’t seem to help, to the degree that I’ve started to do so. Lost time is still lost time, even when you didn’t have much say in it, or even when you were busy getting other things done.)
But the best we can do in life is to try, right? Maybe I’m not supposed to be writing novels, but maybe there is no “supposed to” and maybe it’s just a case of the writerly equivalent of learning some advanced music theory.
With the music, I realize now that I never really sat down and wrapped my head around what one of my first music teachers, Bill Richards, taught me–that tunes are built around series of tonal centers, and if you can learn those, memorizing and freely playing across chord changes becomes much easier. I’m planning on picking up a copy of John Elliot’s Insights in Jazz to help me negotiate all of that a lot better–he’s got an even more systematized way of looking at it than Bill described to me, based on the Lego-Brick theory of some British fellow named Coker.
And with the writing? Maybe I was just going about things in a too-haphazard way. Writing a synopsis for the feature-length film script I drafted for a friend not long ago was an eye-opening experience; so was the last writing exercise I tried with my housemates. Maybe I can be smart about this, and implement what I’ve learned in those contexts, and maybe that’ll make novel writing into something people–people like me–do, rather than something Other People Who Can Do It do. The etudes I’ve been doing with friends are helping, and I can feel myself ready to make a quantum leap up in my writing, just as I somehow, surprisingly, managed to do the other day in my sax playing.
We’ll see. For now, I’m focusing on getting a few more short things written while I figure out exactly what I want to do with the long project, and write myself a synopsis and think about about structure, approach, and so on. I’ll confess, I’m very taken with an idea for a novel that popped into my head suddenly when I was reading the jazz blog Do the Math (hosted by Ethan Iverson, who among other things is the pianist in The Bad Plus). This post specifically, and even more specifically the Robert McGinnis book cover image below taken from it, got my mind spinning in crazy directions towards places where jazz, noir, hard-boiled mystery, PKD-ish reality-slippage, Joanna Russ, meta-critique of the SF genre (and its unmistakeable graying), and more can intersect:
Is such a novel possible? Would it swallow itself like an ourobouros? I’m not sure, but the shape of it looks tantalizing, when I peer at it from a great distance.
But anyway: starting journeys is fraught with peril, not all of them external. That’s what I know now, and I guess I should have known it already. But life’s like that sometimes: reminders are sometimes the lesson, and you have to devise your own solution to the problem set.
Speaking of which, it’s time I got back to work… I have a fantastical story about alchemists, brewers, distillers, and betrayal, set during the height of the Gin Craze, that I want to finish drafting in the next day or two.
Wish me luck, I guess?