BUSAN, South Korea — When all is said and done, Korea is not a bad country to live in. Yeah sure, we complain a lot about the things we miss like food, TV and friends. We like to moan about our jobs, Korea Time (for the uninitiated, ‘Korea Time’ (?????) means inconsiderately late and with no lead time whatsoever, but it’s also a phrase and concept that Korean people seem to find quaint), being stared at (and touched if you’re hairy), as well as other annoyances.
But that being said, there is a big upside. It’s really hard to be a passive observer here, as many Koreans will often go out of their way to include you in their culture. There is also the ease of gaining willful employment, and an experience many of us would never have in our home countries: being a minority and/or an immigrant. And let’s face it, many of us get away with a lot here because we’re foreigners. Which brings to mind something that happened to me about eight years ago…(insert wavy flashback lines here)
For those of you who don’t know the back-story, I was one of those foreign guys on local TV who speaks a bit of Korean and acts like a fool. In Korean, the job title is Jee-yoak bahng song way-gook-in yeon-ay-een. Which roughly translates into English as ‘sell-out’.
The show was called Fresh South Kyoung Sang Province TV (catchy, eh?). And the segment I was on was called ‘Gus and Ryu Min Do Stuff in the Country’ (content self-explanatory). The producers thought that the name might leave a little too much room for interpretation for the channel-surfing 50 to 65-year-old housewife (ajuma) demographic. So, for several weeks it was re-titled ‘Gus and Ryu-Min Do Traditional Korean Stuff in the Country’ (content even more self-explanatory). Later, it was once again retooled back to the original (content re-explanatory).
"His jaw dropped at the sight of me standing next to a kite with ‘Crazy Bitch’ written on it (in Korean) in big letters. The camera crew caught up with him, and for about a half a second there was complete silence followed by bursting laughter.
Regardless of what exactly was going on in the country with Ryu-Min (my Chinese co-star) and me, it would most likely require a three or four hour trip (each way) in a crowded van to make some traditional arts and craftsy thing – which I suck at. I mean, really, really suck at it. In fact, to say that I suck at doing things with my hands is an insult to people who suck at things. If you don’t believe me, just ask my elementary school art teacher, the succession of my nice old lady turned piano teachers turned-retired piano teachers, or my wife.
But this time I was in luck. Perhaps the patron saint of foreigners performing on Korean TV (I can’t remember his name, but he’s one of the newer ones) was smiling on me. The producer handed me the script, and as I read the title, I’m sure my eyes widened and a smile trickled out of the corners of my mouth: “Gus and Ryu Min… something, something… and Fly Kites.” Today we were going just outside of town and our mission involved flying kites!
Ever since I was a little boy, I have loved flying a kite. Running with it, getting it to hover just above the ground and slowly building up altitude is like starting with some paper, some wood and a spark and watching it grow into a big, roaring bonfire. My father and I once made a box kite together. It was red white and blue, and had American Bicentennial illustrations all over it, but it never came close to getting off the ground. The instructions were in Japanese, but Dad insisted he could “figure it out”. In retrospect, that’s probably why it said “Bicentennerial” on it. We would have probably had better luck flying the box the box kite came in, as a sudden gust picked up the box, it lingered in the air for a bit, and flew majestically into the neighbor’s yard.
There’s all kind of different kites. The Benjamin Franklin discovering electricity kind of kite, Chinese Dragon head-looking ones with really long tales, box kites (with Japanese instructions) and I love them all. Some seem to fly better than others. Some are more durable. My favorite is the one that looks like a paper airplane. If you get a good one, it will soar.
About now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal? It’s just flying a kite.” But most of you probably grew up in an area that was near an ocean, a large body of water, the mountains or highlands. When you grow up in a flat, landlocked portion of the Midwestern United States, there is a very small window around the beginning of spring in which there is enough wind to actually enjoy kite flying.
But today wasn’t about the simple joys of flying a kite. Today was about being better than Ryu-Min. You see, up to this point, Ryu-min was kicking my ass at doing traditional Korean stuff in the country. Her spindly fingers cut, weaved and painted circles around me, and endeared her to every traditional artisan we encountered, not to mention honing in on the ajuma market I was desperately trying to corner. She would hold up her perfect recreation to the camera receiving praise from those around her like a grade-grubbing elementary school student, and still have enough time to walk over to where I was struggling and point out “how poorly I did”, and how my “sausage like fingers are better suited for manual labor.”
“Or for allowing a free and democratic society,” I said under my breath in English. Her condemnation of me and my work often made me wonder if she was sent here by the Chinese government to transition the people of Busan out of the American hegemony.
I was taking a beating on this show, literally. It had become the producer’s go-to gag to tell the people instructing us to hit me whenever the action or conversations became too dull. In defense of the instructors that were hitting me, they were only following orders. Some of them had real regret in their eyes as they gave me a look as if to say, “Really? It’s cool if I hit you?” And I would always give them the shoulder shrug, smirk and head bob that conveys, “Eh. What can you do?”
But today was going to be a turning point. Today was the day that I would fly my kite over and beyond Ryu-min’s. Today I was going strike a blow for Uncle Sam against communism and oppression (of the traditional craft world).
Now I am no kite expert, mind you. You’re not going to find me in an Afghan alleyway mowing down other kites, but it is something at which I have some knowledge, experience and a little bit of skill. It was probably just enough to turn the tables on Ryu-min.
It was about the time when my head was swimming with images of my imaginary red, white and blue flyer committing violent acts against Ryu-min’s red kite embroidered with gold stars, that someone said, “OK it’s time to start ‘something something’!” I began feverishly looking up ‘something, something’ in my Korean-English dictionary.
“Someone…sometime…somewhere…oops, I went too far. Here it is. Something, something: The traditional process of gathering materials and converting them for use.”
“Oh crap, a ‘traditional process’,” I thought. Now, I had figure out a way to make making a traditional Korean kite interesting or funny before the beatings began.
Now the first step was to cut down a bamboo tree. I felt good about cutting down my tree much faster and more efficient than Ryu-min. But my proud moment was brief, as I realized that I just proved Ryu-min’s point about manual labor. The bamboo lumberjack/kite maker then held the long stalk upright like a staff, and wedged a knife in the cracks at the top. He looked at me and said, “Tap, tap, tappy,” and gave the knife a tap with a mallet and ran it in short controlled bursts down the length of the tree perfectly splitting it in two.
Ryu Min went first of course. They always let her go first, or showed her skills first. It was kind of like the before pictures of a tornado-devastated trailer park, or the way they always put Wheel of Fortune on right before Jeopardy! So you can feel like a genius for thirty minutes before feeling like a complete idiot all evening. Ryu Min was struggling. She was not in her element. She was a very slender and petite individual with long, pale, spindly, perfectly manicured fingers. You could tell she was not descended from the palookas what built the great wall (her ancestors may have painted it though). I’m sure she traced her family history back to the guys who made all those Ming vases…uhm…the Ming brothers, Mort and Shlohmo Ming.
Her first attempt was classic bamboo wedge fail. My comment of, “Way to wedge, no-wedge,” landed on the cutting room floor. My shock at her failure left me with bupkis in the snappy comeback department. Finally, she wedged the knife in, and summoned her Monty Burns-like strength to pound the knife with the mallet sending it roaring down the bamboo stalk… a good three centimeters. Twenty-three taps later, she had two very evenly split arcs of hollow bamboo stalk.
Now it was my turn. I wedged the knife in at the top of the bamboo. “No problem” (a little nod to Ryu Min). My only gauge as to how hard to hit the knife with the mallet came from watching Ryu-min do it. As I raised the mallet I could hear the announcer of a Mixed Martial Arts bout in my head:
“In this corner, weighing in at 87 pounds, measuring five feet- nothing is…the winner of the brawr inside the warr, kid golgeous, the proletariat parrot… RYU-MIN!!!!!!!
…And in this corner, weighing in at a svelte 210 pounds…ten years and 50 pounds ago the last time he checked, measuring 6 feet two and nine-sixteenths, let’s call it three inches…In the US, he’s known as the patriot missile and ‘Hey you behind the bushes!’… GUS SWANDA!!!
All my concentration was focusing on not looking like a certain 90-pound weakling, when Kite-maker Bob said, “Don’t forget to…!”
“Yeah, yeah I know tap, tap, tappy,” I replied, mocking the sound effects he made during our instruction. And just as I swung down, he shouted, “NO! NO!” The razor sharp knife flew halfway down the bamboo stalk only stopping for my left hand that was grasping and stabilizing the stalk. It was at that point I spoke the only English caught on camera: “son-of-a-BITCH!!!” The knife had completely cut through the protective gloves made from cotton (and woven like old tube socks), and had made a nice flowing gash on the top of my hand, index finger and thumb.
Photo courtesy of Hi Seoul
I could see Ryu-min smiling, as she smelled the blood of her enemy. I’m probably remembering that wrong because of the pain involved both to my hand and my pride. I’m sure she was like everyone else who said, “Oh my god! Are you OK?” Everyone, that is, except for the producer whose only comment was to the cameraman, “Please tell me you got that on tape?!”
We then broke the bamboo up into little strips, sans knife. All that bamboo (and blood), and we really only required three thin, twelve-inch sticks for the frame of the kite. We then glued the sticks as instructed (or as near to ‘as instructed’ as possible for me) with traditional ‘Elmer’s School Glue’, to the hand-made traditional Korean paper. Thank God, we didn’t have to make the paper (this time). It was looking very kite-like, or at least as kite-like as Ryu-Min’s. At that point, even considering the bandages and gauze, I think she and I were neck and neck.
It was about this time when I realized a chink in Ryu Min’s armor (no pun intended). The four strings from the corners of the perfectly square kite Ryu Min had tied together in the middle were very uneven. The failures and disappointments of March in Indiana have taught me that to have stability in one’s kite, those four strings need to be tied evenly.
The old kite-making master took both of our kites in turn, looked at them and then looked at us like a Shaolin monk eye-balling two new recruits. “It’s not important if your kite flies, it’s how it looks when it’s flying,” he told us.
“Did he just call me ‘grasshopper’?” I thought, as he led us to a room with no furniture. In the middle of the bare floor, there was a butt-load of paints and brushes. Oh crap, Art! I had to come up with something quick.
“Master,” I said politely as I tuned away from the paint. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a kite that flies and doesn’t look good, than one that looks great but you can’t enjoy because it doesn’t fly?”
He paused, and said gruffly with a little confusion on his face, “Ugly kites don’t fly.” In one sentence of illogic he had taken away my trump card of: “At least it flies.” He then proceeded to paint on a kite he had made perfectly in only fifteen minutes.
Let me better illustrate my trepidation. All four walls of this room were covered with kites decorated in serene Asian landscapes and perfectly formed Chinese characters (the original Korean alphabet), which I had only seen before on Chinese take-out menus. I panicked and stared on at my blank, very flyable kite, when the producer and cameraman swung over to Ryu-min and exclaimed, “Wow look at what Ryu-min is doing, that’s so pretty. Hey, Gus. Do you know what the Chinese characters Ryu-min wrote on her kite mean?”
I felt like saying, “Of course not you idiot! I’m an American who didn’t know what ‘something something’ meant in Korean, and you expect me to read Chinese?”
“No,” I said.
“It means ‘gentle sky’,” he told me.
Without acknowledging her new Chinese airline slogan, I quickly asked, “Can I write something in Hangul (the modern, super-easy-to-read-and-write Korean alphabet)?”
“Sure, whatever,” he said as he once again turned his back on me to view Ryu-min-palooza.” I knew that in a very short time she would be finished, and the producer would be busting out the left-over bamboo sticks to the crowd of elderly people from the village now gathered to witness foreigners make kites. Or perhaps, they heard rumors of a big foreigner that they could beat on. In any case, I had to think of something fast.
In big Korean letters, I wrote the words “Crazy Kite”. Which by itself is not so remarkable, except for the fact that the word for ‘kite’ in Korean is exactly the same spelling and pronunciation as the word ‘bitch’. And to call a woman a ‘crazy bitch’ is the worst insult you can give Korean women. But, it also meant ‘kite’, which is how I was using it, or how I was pretending to use it.
Ryu-min stood up with what I’m sure was an excellent kite by Korean standards. The producer then cleared a path for her to show her wares through the paint and people now in the room, when his jaw dropped at the sight of me standing next to a kite with ‘Crazy Bitch’ written on it in big letters. The camera crew caught up with him, and for about a half a second there was complete silence followed by bursting laughter.
It seems that for some reason, in the history of the Korean language, no one had ever used the word ‘crazy’ to describe a kite. So when the words ‘crazy’ and ‘kite’ were used together, even on a kite, the Korean person’s first thought is ‘crazy bitch’.
“Do you know what this means?” the kite maker asked me.
As for my response, I want to convey it to you as the normal kimchi-loving ajuma preparing dinner for her hard-working husband and diligent children would have heard it…and did hear it…in its entirety:
“Yeah sure. I know what it means. I wrote it. It means ‘craaaazzzy’ ‘biiiiitch’,” I said pointing at the words.
“I’m pretty proud of my crazy bitch,” I said. “I never knew that making bitches could be so much fun. Where I’m from, it’s hard to yank bitches around. I can’t wait to send this bitch flying! I hope she doesn’t tear.”
The seventy-something year-old kite maker had a disconcerting look on his face like he was thinking, “He just doesn’t get it,” as the throngs of crew and villagers laughed. He tried one last time to explain it to me.
“Yes, you’re right. ‘Crazy bitch’ does mean ‘crazy bitch’, but it also means ‘crazy’ ‘BITCH’. Which is bad,” he told me, shifting his eyes knowing his wife and kids would replay this tape at every family get together, forever.
I countered with, “Let me see if I understood what you said. Bitches are bad? If they’re bad, why did we spend all day learning about them?”
He corrected me with “No, no. Bitches aren’t bad. Bitches are good. I have spent my whole life around bitches. My family is into bitches too. Most of my kids loved doing bitches with me.”
“What about your wife? I asked. “Does she do bitches with you?”
“No,” he said. “I can’t swing her around to the things I like. I also have a son whose isn’t into bitches.”
“My cousin in San Francisco is like that, too,” I reassured him.
“But a ‘crazy bitch’ is bad,” he said. “Do you understand?”
Just then, right before her head was about to explode from lack of attention, Ryu Min burst through the laughing crowd. One second before she could say anything, I looked her square in the eye and said, “Hey, Ryu Min! Crazy bitch! What do you think?”
“Are stupid or something?” she said. “‘Crazy’…(she struggled to say it) ‘b’ is a swear word. You just called me something really bad. (She looked at the producer) He can’t use that kite. It’s obscene!”
The producer looked like he was about to relent. Terrified that I would lose the opportunity to swear on network television dozens of times, I struck a compromise. “What if I wrote ‘crazy kite’ in English on it? Would that be OK?”
The producer agreed and what followed was a series of ‘crazy bitch’ comments at every turn. “Look at that crazy bitch fly!” “It’s bobbing and weaving. That bitch sure is crazy!” “I don’t know what’s crazier – me or that crazy bitch.”
My personal favorite came out as I maneuvered my kite above Ryu Min’s lopsided and constantly crashing kite: “Bitch Fight!” “Don’t mess with my bitch Ryu Min…she’s crazy.”
When we watched the day’s footage in front of the live studio audience, the female host asked me host, “What inspired you to paint your kite like that?”
My answer was simple, “ I kind of hit a wall, creatively. Then I saw Ryu Min, and it just came to me.”
Score: Ryu Min – 147, Gus – 1. Winner: the Korean audience.
Sometimes it’s fun to play the ‘dumb foreigner’. Almost as fun as flying kites.
You can read more from Gus here.