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“Naked in Korea” Update

Just an update, everyone.  Thanks for keeping up.  Right now I am anticipating a mid-May Kindle release for my upcoming book “Naked in Korea”.  Just finished up the first round of edits this afternoon and now I need a fresh pair of eyes to give it a good go over.  Also, I’ve started reading the “Game of Thrones” saga and it has obliterated my productivity completely.  Like, if we want to stop the violence in Syria, we just need to airdrop thousands of copies of Game of Thrones and I guarantee you that everything in that country will stop tomorrow.  Make it happen, Congress.

I’m also EXTREMELY excited about the dystopian/sci-fi novel I’m working on right now.  Imagine “Hunger Games” meets The World Cup and that’ll give you an idea.  I promise it’s going to be better than it sounds.  Trust me, nobody rolls their eyes at “dystopian futures” these days more than I do, but I literally can’t wait to give you a taste of the concepts I’m crunching.  Hopefully, that one will find a mainstream release.  As eager as I am, I really think I’ll have a version of it ready before summer is up.

In the interim, here is another taste of “Naked in Korea” for you to enjoy.  Feel free to let me know your thoughts.


Chapter Twenty:  “Golf” and Other Four-Letter Words

“Naked in Korea” Soundtrack:  Track #20– “V.V.I.P.” by Seung Ri

Korean Film Recommendation:  “The Chaser” (2008)

                June and July of 2011 were two of my easiest months in Korea, primarily because Mr. Lee seemed to be constantly looking for ways to keep me busy.  Knowing that I was near the end of my year in Korea and wanting to make sure that I got to see as much of his country as possible, he truly outdid himself during the sweltering months of summer.  We spent an afternoon at the Korean Folk Village in Yongin , where he and Roy served as my personal tour guides in a mock community made to resemble the ancient villages of Korea’s great dynasties.  We spent an afternoon playing soccer and choku (a local game combining volleyball and soccer) on a military base with local soldiers.  I even had the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee by a gorgeous lake atop one of the nearer mountains in a house that I was told had formerly been one of Kim Il Sung’s summer homes (Kim Il Sung was North Korea’s first president and Kim Jong Il’s father).

One of my favorite summer events involved Mr. Lee inviting me to go “fishing” one afternoon.  Never learning from my other experiences, I assumed this would be a standard fun-filled day of rod & reel fishing out of a nearby lake.  Of course, fishing in Korea was anything but fishing in the U.S.  When we arrived at a relatively mellow river outside of town, Mr. Lee and I promptly stripped down to our underwear and waded out into the river with plastic traps.  Then, following his lead, I swam to the bottom of the river (only ten or so feet at its deepest point) and used stones along the bottom to pin down the traps.  The fish we caught were meager and slimy, but Mr. Lee paid me back by roasting ribs on a makeshift grill he had fashioned along the bank nearest his car.  It was a scrumptious, if unorthodox, way to kill a blistering afternoon.

And, indeed, the weeks were melting away from the heat.  It was so hot, in fact, that one afternoon while I was waiting for the bus, an elderly woman came up to me and grabbed my Gatorade bottle right out of my hand and drained it in front of my dumbfounded gaze.  That actually happened.  Then she looked me square in the eye and tossed the empty bottle on the ground…right in front of a trash can, as if knowing beforehand that my liberal environmentalist sensibilities wouldn’t allow me to let the bottle just sit there.  Basically, what I’m saying is that this ninety-year-old lady stole my Gatorade and then made me pick up after her.  To this day, that moment remains the least amount of damns I have ever seen given by a human being.

Wait, where was I?  Oh, right.  Anyway, my ticket back to the United States was already booked and soon I would be heading back to my homeland.  Everything seemed to be winding down for me.  I was nearly convinced that Korea had no more oddball events to throw at me.

Then, sometime around the middle to latter part of June, my Korean father revealed to me that I would help him bring mini golf to our humble, little town of Ildong.  Sounds like fun, right?  Well, what ensued was one of the most prolonged, frustrating affairs of my entire time in that country—a long lesson in misunderstanding and good intentions that will forever be remembered as the month I spent unwittingly trying to grasp Korean-style business.

I know I have already spent at least two chapters emphasizing the fact that Mr. Lee was a hiking enthusiast, but golf was his second biggest passion.  Even in his crowded stationary store, it was impossible to miss the impressive shelf of golf trophies that were always on display right over his head while he sat at his counter.  He even had his own personal driving net that he had set up on the roof of his apartment building where I went to practice my own swing once or twice.  Mr. Lee was even able to nab us tickets to the Korean Women’s Professional Golf Championship that was to take place at the nearby golf course in Ildong, which was rated as one of the country’s finest courses.

You read that correctly.  Unbeknownst to me for most of my time in South Korea, my little Podunk town in Pocheon was home to one of the ten highest ranked golf courses in the whole country and was about to be home to the women’s national championship.  No one was more surprised than I was.  What I also didn’t realize until about that time was that one of the largest resorts in the country was also being constructed on the outskirts of town, in association with that renowned golf course.  For now, Ildong was a somewhat isolated community in the mountains known only for its military bases and the occasional golf tournament, but soon it would be a haven for throngs of Korean tourists.  I heard there were even plans for a top-tier skiing facility.

All of which was scheduled to open the year after I would leave Ildong.  Figures, right?

Anyway, Mr. Lee was in fairly high standing with the golf course and resort, being a prominent local business owner, golf aficionado, and all-around good-natured guy.  He was on a first name basis with the owner of the golf course, teed off there on occasion himself, and was even able to negotiate free lessons for Roy, who, of course, hated golf like everything else.  So, when the owners of Ildong Lakes Golf Course and the representatives of one of Korea’s foremost noodle companies decided they wanted to bring cheesy-themed American putt putt to South Korea, Mr. Lee and his trusty Caucasian sidekick were on the job.

Of course, I was eager to help Mr. Lee but also very reluctant about the whole thing.  I wasn’t a businessman.  Okay, so I had a few economics and business courses in college, but I was about the last person who should have been responsible for negotiating a deal to bring a high-end mini golf course to Ildong, of all places.  I was humbled and even kind of touched that Mr. Lee had enough confidence in me to volunteer me for the job, but I was baffled that these prominent businessmen actually seemed content to involve me in the project.  Indeed, my American friend Paul, who had recently moved to Ildong as an elementary school English teacher, and I, seemed to have been made their primary consultants before we had even shaken hands for the first time.

Our first dabble in this cultural fiasco came when I was spontaneously invited to lunch one day by Mr. Lee, who had asked my school if he could borrow me for a couple of hours.  I was happy to escape work on a slow day, so I hopped into the car with Roy and his father and we picked up Paul at his school before heading off into the mountains.  Along the way, Mr. Lee did his best to explain that he had some friends he wanted Paul and I to meet and asked if we would be willing to hear their plans about a business venture.  We knew it had something to do with golf, but Roy’s English wasn’t quite good enough to deeply explain the intricacies of such a convoluted plan.

I assumed we were just going to have to shake some hands and smile a lot—maybe drink some soju and show off our chopsticks skills.  Usually when Mr. Lee invited me to meet a friend or colleague of his, this was how it worked, and I was a pro at this sort of interaction.  I was just his handsome, young foreigner and, for the small price of just sitting there being polite and charming, he would buy me lunch or dinner.  It was a relationship that worked.  With certainty, I felt a bit like a trained monkey wearing suspenders and smoking a cigar, but we trusted each other, and—like I said—FREE MEAL!

But this time was different.  From the moment we walked in and I spotted the two well-dressed businessmen waiting at the table for us, with several manila folders and carefully sorted documents stacked up neatly between them, I knew this was something more serious.  Following Mr. Lee’s cues in introducing myself to them, I took my seat at the table and began to wonder just what I had gotten myself into this time.

Although I could barely follow the conversation—I was too distracted by the fact that, for the first time in eleven months, the waiter at this restaurant had given me a fork instead of chopsticks (I was the only one to whom he gave a fork, mind you)—they conveyed their general desire to build an elaborate miniature golf course in Ildong.  It seemed easy enough.  These gentlemen clearly had money and they looked capable of spending it.  I couldn’t quite understand why they needed me.

Well, it turned out that they had their hearts set on a specific golf course that they had stumbled upon in Florida.  How exactly they had found it was beyond me.  The golf course had an “African Safari” theme and, of course, tons of corny sculptures and animatronics, but it looked like any other nice putt-putt course I had ever seen in the United States.  What I quickly realized, though, was that these two businessmen had never seen a real putt-putt golf course in their lives, and as far as they knew, this place in Florida was the only one like it that existed anywhere in the world.

But the problem was not that these kind entrepreneurs wanted a course like this one in Orlando.  The problem was that they wanted that specific course in Korea, and I was going to help them do it.

Now, trying to explain to these enthusiastic Korean businessmen (who were buying me lunch) that they couldn’t have this particular mini golf park photocopied and dropped in the middle of Ildong was like trying to tell a group of orphans that there was no Santa Claus.  Actually, I take that back.  They were so eager to get to work on what they suspected to be a goldmine waiting to happen, that trying to explain to them what I considered to be the enormous complexities behind this process felt like telling them there was a Santa Claus, but that I had killed him.  All these men knew is that they had they money, they had the resources, and they wanted this one putt-putt park in Florida to come to Ildong.

It hardly seemed to matter to them that there were dozens of international mini golf course designers who probably could have been baited to build their course instead.  It didn’t even seem clear to me why this group in the middle of Korea had decided that they had to have a “safari-themed” mini golf course when literally endless possibilities existed.  I tried to explain that, for the right price, they could have had a “Kimchi-Themed” putt-putt course if they wanted, or even something devoted to K-Pop.  But they were fixated on this putt-putt course in Florida and only this putt-putt course and when it came to these sorts of negotiations, I was beginning to think that Koreans were about as flexible as bamboo.

                Not much was accomplished during that first meeting, for obvious reasons.  Although noble in their intentions, the two businessmen with whom we spoke simply had no idea how to properly go about this process.  They expected a group from Florida to come and build the damn thing without even taking into account the fact that neither of them spoke a word of English.  When the two men asked Paul and I to have a look at the “important documents” they had brought along in the aforementioned manila folders, we discovered nothing but a completely useless putt-putt article and a construction proposal for some sort of handicapped elevator at one of the Florida franchises (I could not make this up).  Since neither of the men spoke English, they had simply printed out everything they could find related to the golf course in question and assumed that everything they printed was relevant and important.

Paul and I could only laugh about the absurdity of the whole project.  While we both agreed that a miniature golf course would probably be pretty popular in Korea, we could not wrap our minds around the way this business group was going about building one.  I mean, for all intents and purposes, the head translator for the whole project was Roy—an apathetic 13-year-old who was gifted in English but possessed almost none of the necessary vocabulary for this sort of transaction.  We would ask the businessmen a question about contractors, funding, landscaping, resources, etc. and Roy would have no choice but to look up the words on his phone dictionary—something I could just as easily have done myself.

Of course, we didn’t blame Roy.  He wasn’t supposed to know those words!  Roy knew how to talk about music, order food at restaurants, and converse about things that mattered to middle school students—not how to seal the deal on a golf course contract!  Naturally, every time we tried to bring this matter up to the other adults overseeing the potential project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, we were completely dismissed.

A real translator?  But that would cost money!

Unfortunately, this whole ridiculous affair soon became one of the few real cultural skirmishes I encountered in Korea—which was bound to happen, I suppose, in hindsight.  In the beginning, I was willing to do anything I could to help advance the project, including calling the particular golf course in Florida to see if there was any possibility of them coming to South Korea to recreate one of their parks.  That phone call was and continues to be the most awkward of my entire life, as I got the distinct feeling that the secretary with whom I spoke was immediately convinced she was being pranked or scammed.  I might as well have been a Nigerian prince.

But as time went on, I admittedly began blowing the project off because of what I considered to be a laughably unrealistic business strategy and, while I’m not saying it wasn’t, I soon realized that my increasingly flippant demeanor was starting to drive a wedge between myself and my best friend on the entire Asian continent.  Whether I liked it or not, Mr. Lee seemed to perceive me as being the difficult one.  He and his colleagues simply could not understand why no amount of money would bring them the golf course they wanted (which just happened to be the first and only one they had even bothered to look at).  I knew that in order to save face, I would have to come up with either a viable alternative for them or flee to Thailand.

As you can probably guess, I did a little bit of both.

For my summer vacation, I did everything I could to help out with the doomed mini golf project, while also enjoying myself with what little time I had left in Korea.  For several weeks, I did more research on the intricacies of putt-putt course design than I ever could have imagined I would do during my time on this planet.  Paul made several more phone calls on Mr. Lee’s behalf to companies in the United States and I looked up a variety of international contractors who specialized in this sort of thing and printed out the results—not so much so that Mr. Lee would have the information as just to show him that I cared about it.

Progress was slow, which was fine by me.  It kept me from having to really do any exhaustive work on the project, while also ensuring that I would be on my flight back to Kentucky before anything significant could happen.  It was a win-win…at least, for me it was.

On the weekends, though, I would occasionally go to hide in Seoul and my first stop was my first professional baseball game between the LG Twins and the Samsung Lions.  This was one of my favorite experiences in Korea and, let me tell you—Koreans know how to do baseball.  Not only do they excel at the sport itself, almost everyone in the stadium brought in a picnic’s worth of food and beer was only $3.  Our party enjoyed some bowls of nangmyeon next to the parking area before carting in several boxes of fried chicken from a KFC inside the stadium.  I can’t remember who won the game, but I’ll tell you who lost:  My waistline, which is the way it should be.  Finally, I bought a hat and a scarf to cap off the evening and remember the experience.  I have since worn my Samsung Lions baseball cap around Kentucky in a half-hearted attempt to get noticed by local Koreans, but I think everyone just assumes the “SL” stands for “St. Louis.”

My desperation to escape the minutiae of putt-putt construction came to an impasse by the first of August, however, and I fled to Phuket, Thailand for a week.  There, I expected a relaxing week along some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world—basking in the sunlit tropics while peaceful waters kissed white sand for miles in all directions.  Boy, was the joke on me.

I won’t belabor my experiences in Thailand, except to say that after a week in Phuket I was ready to come crawling back to Ildong.  Don’t get me wrong:  The Thai people were great and every time my friends and I found ourselves surrounded only by the locals, we discovered fantastic food at wonderful prices and were met with nothing but friendly smiles.  Whenever we wandered into Phuket’s many tourist traps, however, we were met with the kind of experience that makes me want to never go back to a place.

To quote Obi Wan Kenobi, as he and Luke Skywalker stood on a cliff looking down at the desert city of Mos Eisley in “Star Wars”, we could not have expected to find “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”.  Every step we took, we were either being insulted by someone for not spending money, assaulted by throngs of girls and transvestites hawking massages, or Indian gentlemen trying to sell us suits despite the fact that we were clearly on our ways back from surfing at the beach—exhausted, covered in sand, and dripping with salt water.  I could barely walk twenty feet before someone would grab my hand and, in an attempt to win my wallet by making small talk, lob a dart at a map of white people: “Oh…You’re from New Zealand?”  No.  “Ireland?”   No.  “Um…Malta?”  Sure, let’s go with that one.

Evidently, these salesmen didn’t greet too many American tourists that time of year.

In other words, Phuket was kind of like Las Vegas, in a sense.  If you came for debauchery, you were going to find a lot to like.  If you came for a relaxing vacation, good luck.  Me, I just tried to appreciate the irony of my last excursion outside of Korea:  One of the highlights of my whole trip to Thailand was playing dinosaur-themed mini golf.  Ultimately, I left Korea to return to the United States before a deal was reached on the ill-fated Ildong putt-putt course, but something tells me they will eventually get what they were after—no matter what it takes.  I just feel for the poor American who ends up helping them build it.