Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To Travel Hopelessly: The Lost Chapter

When I compiled and edited the stories from my original website into the self-published book TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY, one chapter didn't make the final cut. My editor said it didn't fit with the flow of the book and was a bit of a "long-winded aside" and some of the references were too dated, anyway.

Indeed my editor was right, but as I'm occupied this week with a side-trip to sunny holiday spot Beirut, Lebanon, enjoy this little slice of Korea-in-the-90s.

See you next week, inshallah.

Original cover


And here I bet you thought I was just a somewhat well-known local English teacher, and an almost completely unknown Internet author and cartoonist.

No, far from it!

In fact, I've made my mark in several kinds of media over the years.

When I was 15, I was featured on a television news program when then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton came to my school to speak about educational reform. I was shown sitting in the bleachers of the gym with my arms crossed, wearing a grey sweatshirt with the neck cut out. Ah, the 80s.

When I was living in New Orleans in 1991, the Jean Claude Van Damme film Hard Target was filmed in the neighborhood where I was living – the lower French Quarter. The opening scene, in which a man is shot with an arrow, happens outside my apartment at the time, which was at 1133 Royal Street.

This forced me to stay inside the apartment for quite a lot of time while they blocked shots and moved lights and props around and so forth – opening the door to get out would have ruined the shots.

I didn't get paid anything for all this inconvenience, but I did get to eat free hamburgers and tacos off the catering table.  And I saw Jean Claude Van Damme up close – he's really short.

Similarly, I was part of a crowd scene in the Julia Roberts film The Pelican Brief – a thug chasing Julia Roberts runs past a scuzzy punk club on Decatur Street, where I used to hang out a lot, and the story has him bumping into the bouncer and then getting into a fight with all the denizens of the club, while Julia Roberts runs off.

Julia Roberts, of course, was nowhere near New Orleans for that scene, all of her stuff having been filmed on comfortable sound stages in Los Angeles somewhere, but the thug slamming into the security guard and then being mobbed by angry grunge punks was filmed on location on a sweltering August evening in 1993, and the members of the angry crowd were paid $10 apiece and given free beer.

After 12 takes, the drunken, sweaty, smelly young people jumping on top of each other and kicking each other, fighting to get their hands on the thug and thus show up in the film, got to be a bit much for me, so I left.

I never got my $10, but I did get quite a lot of free cheap draft beer, as well as a lot of bruises on my ankles and legs. I am not visible in the final film. Though who knows, maybe I'll end up in a special DVD version someday.

This pattern of multimedia superstardom continued when I got to Korea in 1996.  

It was a small class of three women and two men studying as part of their job, which was somehow connected to the government. The class was as boring and uncomfortable as a 19-hour bus ride through the Midwest.

We were joined at some point by another student, who turned out to have a part-time job with a company that made educational cassette tapes for use by Korean students. She told me I had a wonderful voice, and wondered if I'd like to participate in doing voiceover narrations for the cassette tapes they produced. The pay was astounding – something like $50 an hour.

I tried to conceal my excitement as I called the manager of the company on the pay phone of the small, cramped English institute where I worked. I made a mental effort to lower the pitch of my nasal voice and smooth out the occasional stammering and the nervous quavering which the thought of $50 an hour was likely to produce.

"I understand you're looking for narrators," I said, my voice all honey and Barry White.


"Would you like me to come in for an interview?"

"I think your voice is fine. Can you come work for us on Friday at 3:00 pm?"

The student gave me directions to the recording studio, which was way the hell out on the edge of Seoul at the end of one of the subway lines. I managed to find the office, and somehow also managed to walk into a low-hanging branch with thorns on it and cut my forehead open.

"Are you all right?" asked the woman worriedly.

"Of course," I assured her, blotting the blood off my forehead with tissue paper.

They led me into the studio – the door was open, and a sort of box had been attached to the air conditioning unit to blow air directly into the studio at high blast.

Recording studios have to be completely insulated and can't have any other kind of noise sources inside them, so they had to cool it down first.  I was relatively sure, however, there would be no danger of suffocating.

They showed me inside, and tossed me a large script of about fifty pages.

"Your parts are underlined in yellow."

"Can I, uh, take some time to look through it?"

They just smiled in that Korean way that I knew meant, "No."

Within a few seconds we were rolling. Most of my lines were things like: "Lesson Three: The Animal Kingdom" and "Level Test Five" and "Unit Two: Gerunds," but occasionally I had to read a line of dialogue. "I haven't eaten lunch yet" or "It's very hot in here today."

Occasionally they'd stop me with some coaching. "Brighter," they often said. Not sure what that meant, I just tried to sound excited. It wasn't too hard – I just thought of the $50.

I got through the first session easily enough, without any too-glaring or ridiculous fuck-ups, and they gave me $50 – about 40,000 Korean won, at that time – and said they'd call me the next time they had work available.

It became a good little earner for me (as was just about everything I did in Korea – it was the only reason I was there, essentially, though I did develop a taste for Korean barbecue), and I worked for them about every two or three weeks. They almost always got me out of there within an hour, rushing me through the lines as quickly as possible.

I got a little better at it, but some of the lines I was expected to read were rather challenging, especially since they never let me look through the scripts in advance.

For example, every once in a while I'd come across a line like: "Voice of Tiger: I am the King of the Jungle.” I managed that one with a suitable Tony the Tiger-like snarl, and they complimented me on it.
Then there was "Voice of Mountain God: I create the wind!" I just adopted a sort of booming, Charlton Heston-like baritone, with a sort of aspirant hissing which I thought sounded rather windy.

They did two takes with that one, unsure.

"Did I sound like a Mountain God?" I inquired.

The sound man looked at the director, and she shrugged, and we moved on to the next line.

We got in our worst disagreement over "Voice of Old Man: I am a very old man." I read it in a slow, wheezing tired way, and she stopped me immediately.

"Not like that, no space between words."

"I am a very old man," I said quickly, sounding like William Burroughs.

They didn't like that, either. The third time I did it with a southern accent, for some reason.

 Finally, I just kind of pitched my voice higher, and rasped out with obvious pride: "I am a very old man."
Eventually the director shrugged again, and we moved on.

Of course, like many things in my life, I eventually fucked up that good thing through my own negligence. They called me on a Thursday and asked me if I could come in for an hour on Friday. I said of course, as usual.

But then on Friday I woke up with a raspy voice and a sore throat. This happened to me a lot in Korea – probably a combination of talking all the time in my job, since the students wouldn't ever say anything, and my freezing cold room in the cheap hotel, with its drafty paper windows.

I wonder in retrospect if it wasn't something akin to hysterical, psychosomatic laryngitis caused by the thought of having to stand in front a class without having the slightest idea what I was doing.

Anyway, I couldn't bring myself to call the cassette company and tell them I couldn't do it the next day. I showed up hoping for the best, having already drunk numerous cups of ginseng tea with lemon, hoping it would smooth my voice out.

Naturally, they were pretty pissed off by the end of the hour, as I painfully squeaked my way through the lines. Too bad there weren't any lines like "Voice of Person With Throat Cancer: Smoking is bad for you, kids" or "Voice of Froggy from the Little Rascals: Let's go down to the fishing hole." They might have been able to use those, but as I gathered, they had to discard the whole session.

They paid me $50 anyway, though. I apologized, said that the sore throat had just started on the way out to the studio, but they never called me again.

Oh well.

Multimedia stardom was sill in the offing for me however. I'd known people in Thailand and Korea who did occasional work for television – they often needed white people to play extras, especially villains or prostitutes, in Thai and Korean TV shows.

I never got involved in this myself – not by choice, anyway.

One Friday evening I was pulled out of my last class 15 minutes before the end by the then-assistant to the manager, a mouth-breathing idiot in his early twenties who wore the same suit every single day. He explained something to the class, and took me to another, larger class, where a brightly lit video camera was filming a Korean teacher in front of the class.

"What the hell is going on?" I asked.

"TV program, very popular. Five minutes," said the idiot.

"What am I supposed to do?"

"Teaching. No problem. Five minutes."

He pushed me in front of the class with the Korean teacher, where we led the class on some pronunciation choral drills while the camera rolled.

I asked the Korean teacher, who spoke marginally better English than the idiot manager, what the hell was going on. He explained that it was a popular comedy interview program, and the hostess – a ditzy redhead dressed in flamboyant pink – wanted to talk to some men who were working late about how they dealt with their wives.

Ah. I'd seen these programs before on Korean television – man-in-the-street type interviews. They took particular pleasure in making fun of foreigners, and I always gave them a wide berth when I saw them filming in the subway or on the street somewhere.

The camera filmed the hostess sleeping in the back of the class while we were teaching, then, as the class was being dismissed, she popped awake and called after us.

I quickly tried to make an exit.

It was a Friday night, after all. Reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 was on the American Armed Forces Korea Network at 9:00 pm, and I needed to drink a few beers and see if Dylan had killed the rich gangster who'd killed his father. There'd been a pretty dramatic cliffhanger the week before – Dylan's future wife, the gangster's daughter, had been accidentally shot in Dylan's place. Man! What would happen?

The owner of the school – a sour, Confucian asshole who constantly wore a ball cap – barked at the idiot, and the idiot rushed over and grabbed me by the arm. "No no no no no, please. Five minutes, five minutes," he begged and wheedled. "Five minutes, just sitting and talking.

I made desperate excuses, but he continued his "five minute" mantra and the owner was barking so furiously at him I decided to cut the poor guy some slack.

So I sat there with two of the older Korean teachers and two of the managers as they smoked cigarettes and talked in Korean with the ditzy funny hostess. The topic was apparently – do your wives get angry and/or jealous because you don't come home until 10:00 pm?

She asked me a question or two in halting broken English, which I tried to answer pleasantly, smiling a big fake smile. Then she started making jokes about how she was too afraid to speak to me.

I just sat there like a moron.

When the interview was over – a painful 15 minutes or so – the hostess came up to me and said in perfect English. "Thanks for helping us out. Sorry if we inconvenienced you."

"That's all right," I said.

But it was too late – I never did find out, until years later when I looked it up on the Internet, whether Dylan killed the gangster than killed his father. He didn't. He left the guy sobbing over his daughter's grave, the daughter he'd accidentally killed, wanting him to have to live with the guilt and the pain.


I guess I had it pretty easy, compared to that shit.

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