bookmark_borderPost-279: The President is Unpopular Again

The President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is not popular. She has surpassed 60% disapproval. Only 34.5% (+/- 2%) in a poll last week said they approve of her. 

I first wrote about this in post #10 (“Unpopular Leaders”). At the time, April 2013, I wrote the following (with [bracketed] explanations added), information I’d gotten from the newspaper:

Presidential Approval After One Month in Office  [according to the Korea Herald]
% Approval……………..President……………Year
……….71%……………..Kim Young-Sam…….1993 [centrist; first non-military president since 1961]
……….71%……………..Kim Dae-Jung………….1998 [left-wing; began Sunshine Policy with NK]
……….60%…………….Roh Moo-Hyun……..2003 [left-wing; elected during anti-U.S. hysteria of 2002]
……….52%…………….Lee Myung-Bak………2008 [right-wing freemarket type]
……….41%……………..Park Geun-Hye……….2013 [right-wing, daughter of 1960s-1970s strongman General Park]

[O]ne cannot help think that Koreans are getting more and more cynical about their leaders, as time goes on.

Park Geun-Hye’s popularity today (34.5%) has not much changed from its level of two years ago (41%). But people are more deeply annoyed now:

40.3% of respondents “highly disapproved” of the president […] the first time the figure has exceeded 40%.

Koreans are prone to political overreactions (as I see it). Several former presidents and their staffs from 1980s through the present have faced legal prosecution after leaving office, and many actually did prison time (including two presidents), for alleged crimes they allegedly presided over. In other words, when the right-wing has gotten in power, they start an elaborate process of political trials against the former left-wing leaders who preceded them (and vice versa); heavy fines and jail terms are liberally handed out. I find this to be highly undignified, the worst kind of naked political prosecutions of political enemies when one has a temporary political advantage. This is a bad sort of political overreaction.

Another form of political overreaction, as I see it, may be to “disapprove” of a head of government for no particular reason. That’s what politics in a liberal democracy seems to be about, they may perceive.

They may have gotten this idea (“disapproval for no reason”) from the USA. Who is the last U.S. president who maintained consistent, comfortable-majority approval? Eisenhower? Majority-disapproval of a U.S. president has become all but expected in the USA.

President Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak (2008-2012), too, had dismal approval ratings for most of his presidency, often below 30% approval. Among other issues, the left (and the racialist center) accused Lee of cozying up to the Yankees [See #263 and #264]; he reallowed U.S. beef imports (banned in 2003), a major domestic political issue, and he negotiated a U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, and majorly toned down the anti-USFK rhetoric — By my first arrival in 2009, two years after Lee took office, the once-common “No Americans Allowed” on businesses were almost all gone.

So presidential disapproval will continue until…when? Will it be like this forever from now on?


bookmark_borderPost-278: Marxists to Lead a Government in Europe Again

It’s Greece.

For the record, that was a long run of 25 years (1990-2014) of no Marxist governments in Europe.

The self-described “radical left” Syriza party (Syriza is a Greek acronym for “Coalition of the Radical Left“) got 36.3% of vote in Greece January 2015, which was first place. The Greek system gives an extra fifty seats to the party in first place (an interesting idea, though I’m not sure a good one) which gives them 149 seats of 300, two seats from a majority. They’ll bring in some minor partner and will govern Greece. Their leader, Tsipras, is already sworn in.

If the new government refuses outright to continue to pay Greece’s substantial debt to the (capitalist) foreign banks, as they probably will, they may be expelled from the EU, like Malaysia expelled Singapore in 1965.

Then what?



Greece has lost something like 30% of its economy in the past decade to endless economic contraction; unemployment exceeds 25%; economic depression conditions.

This as: (1) an actual shooting war is going on in Europe (Ukraine), and (2) as a  low-level Islamic insurgency festers in the rich EU core, an insurgency mostly not organized (but insurgencies need not be)….

bookmark_borderPost-277: Encounter with a Retarded Young Man

Bucheon, Korea, Evening of January 22nd. A mentally-retarded young man spotted me on a bus and began to follow me after we got off. He insisted I take a handful of coins he had. I politely rejected his offer of the coins. He didn’t accept my answer. He kept offering the coins, and kept following me.

At first he gestured towards a bakery-coffeeshop (I doubt his coins’ value were sufficient to buy anything there). After we passed it, he pointed to a nearby fruit seller. It seemed he wanted to eat together. The young man was literally and metaphorically extending his hand in a gesture of friendship.


He couldn’t speak even his native language (Korean) well. Things came out garbled. His actions likewise were pushing the limits even of “odd”. His movements were jerky. He repeatedly scanned his transport card while waiting to get off the bus (you’re only supposed to do it once). His face had a tic. He was riding the bus alone and this alone is impressive.

His offer of his small handful of coins was pathetic, in the original sense of the word, causing or evoking pity or sympathetic sadness”. I told him sorry one last time and ascended the stairs into the train station, leaving him behind. The last image I have of him is of him staring up sadly at me, not moving.

Korean coins are almost more an annoyance to me than anything. He couldn’t conceive that his would-be gift, the handful of coins, had little value to me. They were a big deal to him. It’s like the Bible story about the poor woman who donated two pennies. Jesus praises her because her relative donation exceeded that of all the chief priests.

This young man was my mental inferior by a wide margin (and actually the mental inferior of any normal person). Perhaps he, too, understood this at some level and was frustrated by it during our two minutes together. I imagine what it would be like to be in his place. Meeting hyper-intelligent extra-terrestrials, say. In that case, I would be the retarded(-seeming) one. (All things being relative.) Any attempt I might make to be friendly to such far-mental-superiors would be viewed at best condescendingly, like my own view of the retarded boy I’ve described above…

bookmark_borderPost-276: Low Five (Or, How We are Remembered)

A huge majority of what we see, hear, and experience on a given day doesn’t create any lasting memory. Every day we impact others through words and deeds, and others impact us, but most of it is lost, sooner or later, in the foggy nether-regions of memory. We can’t choose which of our words or deeds will stick in another’s memory, creating a lasting impact. Nor can they choose what they do that ends up impacting us. You never know what it will be. It’s all kind of like a cosmic casino. It’s one reason life is interesting.

I had a student five years ago named J.G. Lee. I remember him as small and smiling, naive and optimistic, and humorous but polite. I think he was in 7th grade at the time. After four and a half years of no contact at all, I recently came to learn a primary memory he has of me, and was thereby moved to write these words:


It so happens that I still am in semi-regular communication with the boss of the institute (whom I profiled in #48), my first job in Korea, where he was a student from 2009 till probably about 2012. This J.G. is now about to enter university, in March 2015, and in his waning days of high school here he paid a visit to his old English institute in Ilsan (many will tell you that it is these for-profit institutes, or hagwon, that are the main avenues of education in Korea, and perhaps elsewhere in East Asia. For many, the hagwon has more emotional attachment than the huge, impersonal, and poorly-run school).

Communicating using a phone-based instant messaging program during his visit, the boss wrote to me: “[J.G.] is here. Do you remember him?” I did. I said I remember an essay he wrote proposing making an alien a pet. I thought it was funny and clever and I kept the essay. He had no memory of this essay. Instead, he said he remembers “Low five”.

What is “low five”? It came back to me. Some of these boys at the hagwon in those days really liked doing “high five”. Don’t ask me why. I used their predilection towards high-fiving to introduce them to the world of playing with language. You know this one: “Give me five — Up high! — Down low!…Too slow!” It was amazing to be able to use this on kids who flatly didn’t see it coming at all. A variant of this was instead of “high five”, doing “low five”. I remember also doing things like “Give me four” (four fingers) instead of “five” and so on.

This may all seem very silly, I know. I was supposedly his English teacher. But that “Low Five” has stuck with him shows, we might say, that the impact I made on him was a positive one. From me, his mind more firmly grasped that English is a living language (which surprisingly-few East Asians in East Asia seem to truly understand; trained by their system to do so, they imagine English to be a form of mathematics, more or less). Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure these boys didn’t even understand what “high five” meant, they just knew it as a stock phrase, picked up from somewhere, treating it like Westerners might treat a Latin phrase, like “et cetera”. We know the function of “et cetera” as we use it in English, but we don’t actually understand it in its own language and we couldn’t manipulate it into some other form in Latin. (But, then, Latin is a dead language.) Likewise, “high five” had no meaning to the boys except as a substitute for the phrase “slap my hand” (as “etc.” is a substitute for “and so on”).  But if “Low Five” is possible, then English is a living language which can be played with!

bookmark_borderPost-275: Not So Much Water After All

All the world’s water and air, to scale (from here):


The sphere is  much smaller still if only counting fresh water.

Anyway, the lesson is that life is precarious and precious.

In times of plenty we get comfortable. We forget that life is actually terrifyingly precarious (see, e.g., #252 here).

Say that little sphere’s-worth of water is taken away. Then what? Then everything dies. It’s the end. Or can we manufacture artificial water by now?

bookmark_borderPost-274: Malaysia-Singapore-Korea Cookie Mystery

Here is a mystery.

Currant Butter Cookies (600 calories) White Castle — “Traditional Recipe”
Made in Penang, Malaysia
Imported by Singapore
Ended up in Incheon, South Korea, selling for 1,000 Won (=90 U.S. cents) in January 2015, where it was bought by me.



The mystery is, how can anyone make a profit selling snacks shipped from so far away at such low prices? What kind of sense does that make?

These “White Castle” cookies were sold in what I’d describe as a “foreign snack mini-warehouse” in Incheon. I’ve seen similar places in Seoul and in Gwangju. Only foreign snacks are sold in these.

The “store” was strange. There was a makeshift, “questionably legal enterprise” feel to it, like a streetside pirated-DVD-selling operation. No proper shelves. Snacks for sale crammed in boxes on the floor or haphazardly sprawled out on shabby tables; prices scrawled on bits of cardboard with a black marker. No receipt given. No pleasantries from the girl at the cash register. Cash only. Don’t stick around. This is a lower standard of things that you’d find in much poorer countries; South Korea is among the world’s richest today.

I also got a large package of Oreo-type cookies called “Borneo”. It declares itself to be a “Crispy Cocoa Biscuit” snack with “Vanilla Flavoured Cream”. Borneo is an island, full of jungles I guess, divided between Malaysia and Indonesia. I got Borneo (780 calories) for 1,000 Won (90 U.S. cents) as well. I thought it was funny that Malaysia would make a snack using the name of its own wild jungle-filled island. But here is the funny part. “Borneo” is made in Turkey.

bookmark_borderPost-273: [Korean] Early Childhood Education in a Foreign Language

I wrote, memorized, and delivered the following presentation in Korean this week. It probably reached five minutes in total with the question and answer period.
안녕하십니까? 저는 “외국어 조기 교육”에 대한 발표를 준비했고 지금부터 그 발표를 하겠습니다.

외국어조기교육이란 초등학교에 입학하기 전에 외국어를 배우는 것을 뜻합니다. 예를 들어, 영어를 가르치는 유치원들은 조기교육으로 볼 수 있습니다.

외국어조기교육은가르치는 방법에 따라 두 가지 종류로 나누어 볼 수 있습니다. 첫째는 외국어 유치원에서 공부하는 것이고, 둘째 집에 있을 때 텔레비전이나 컴퓨터를 봐 가면서 외국어를 배우는 것입니다. 그러니까 활동적인 방법도 있고 수동적인 방법도 있습니다.

외국어 조기 교육에 대해서 더 설명하겠습니다. 많은 한국인 부모님들은 영어를 일찍 배우는 것이 좋다고 생각합니다. 그러니까, 요즘 한국에 있는 영어를 가르치는 유치원이 많아졌다고 합니다. 그런 유치원 중에 한국인 아이들을 외국인 원어민 선생님이 가르치는 곳도 있습니다. 그 곳에서 한국인 아이들은 재미있게 놀아 가면서 영어를 배울 수 있습니다.

외국어조기교육에 찬성하는 사람도 있고 반대하는 사람도 있지만 이 발표에서 의견에 대해 이야기 못 합니다. 그래서, 이 것으로 제 발표를 모두 마치겠습니다. 질문이 있으면 꼭 물어보세요. 감사합니다.

Early Childhood Education in a Foreign Language
Hello. I have prepared a presentation about “early childhood education in a foreign language” and I’d like to deliver it now.

What do we mean when we talk about “early childhood education in a foreign language”? It means learning a foreign language before entering elementary school. We can see foreign-language kindergartens as an example.

We can divide foreign language learning in early childhood into two types, according to the method used. The first is kindergarten, and the second is learning through watching TV or something on the computer. Therefore both active and passive methods exist.

Let me explain some more about early childhood foreign language education. Many Korean parents believe that learning English at a young age is a good idea. Therefore, the number of English kindergartens has increased in recent times. Among these kindergartens, there are also those in which Korean children are taught by foreign native-speaker teachers. In these places, Korean children can learn English through having fun, playing games.

There are both supporters and opponents of this practice, but in this presentation I am not allowed to talk about opinions, and so with that my presentation ends. If you have any questions, please ask them now. Thank you.

This is what I wrote on the white board as I was going along:

“Early Childhood Foreign Language Education”
Age 1 to 6 : Learning lang.

Kindergarten ……… TV / Computer
(Active) ……………………….(Passive)


I spoke slowly and I think everyone understood what I said. I knew the presentation went well because other students promptly asked me coherent and thoughtful questions:

The sole Japanese said that back in Japan, too, “early childhood foreign language education” is now a popular thing. Then she asked about how popular it is in the USA. I said I thought it was very rare in the USA. Americans are usually not interested in foreign languages (at this point I couldn’t think quickly enough of how to say “low level of interest” so I did some sign language which got a laugh).

A Chinese student with whom I’d studied before, G.N., asked which form, active or passive, I thought was better. I said active was better but harder.

The teacher, who has a kindergarten-aged child asked a question. She asked if I supposed “English kindergartens” are worth it. I don’t really know, as I have no experience with them. (The youngest student I’ve ever taught was in 4th grade;mostly I’ve taught teenagers.) I muttered something about it being okay to start at any age.

bookmark_borderPost-272: What Happened to Standards of Decency?

High-profile political killings in France last week.

Twenty people were killed in several gun attacks. Three were police and three were the perpetrators (Muslims; all three born in France in the early 1980s to non-European parents). That leaves 14 “civilians” among the killed. Of these 14, six were Jews and one was a Muslim, leaving seven“Français de souche” (old-stock French) victims. (I found an essay entitled “French Lesson” by Dr. Peter Frost to be insightful in analyzing the attacks.)

The main group of victims was at a (so-called) “satirical magazine” which publishes tasteless, filthy, deliberately offensive “political” cartoons. The worst of the cartoons are definitely inflammatory and humiliating, up to and including depictions of the genitalia of Mohammed and Jesus and graphic sexual acts involving the same.

(At the risk of speaking ill of the deceased,) The people behind this magazine seem to have been deeply nihilistic and perhaps psychologically disturbed. It doesn’t mean they deserve to have died. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that people who published such things would’ve been under serious risk of being lynched by local European Christians for either blasphemy or degeneracy or both.

I have to ask: What happened to standards of decency in publishing? Are they all out the window in France? Why were cartoons so inflammatory and frankly indecent by (surely) anyone’s standard allowed to be published and sold?

France is totally committed to free speech, I’m told, no matter who may get offended. Yet that’s not the case: France is one of the countries that has a law imposing heavy fines and even jail sentences on Holocaust revisionists, for one. For another, a Black comedian called Dieudonne was prosecuted for “hate speech” for his comedy routines and certain political statements. The government has imposed a total television ban on him. (Here he is on a TV program defending himself from a critic before the lifetime ban was handed down.)

So I am left confused.

bookmark_borderPost-271: China’s Dream

Is China going to take over as world superpower?  The question came up as we sat eating chicken one late December 2014 evening in Sinchon, Seoul. I sat with three South Koreans (by birth), male, born between the late 1970s and 1990, all of whom had lived extensively abroad.

One had lived half his life in England and had the air of a British intellectual about him. (He reminded me of my former coworker M.G. from England, despite the racial difference.) He said the “key question” was whether China would make moves towards being the “world police,” as the USA has been for something around about seventy years now.

I said I didn’t think China was interested in being world police. (This is not the same as saying China won’t be. I don’t think the USA was interested either in becoming a “world superpower” at all in, say, 1900 or 1910!)


Another of the Koreans, who’d lived in China most of his life, did not address the issue directly but chose instead to tell us about a certain billboard campaign active in China right now. He said all over China you can see billboards on which are printed two large words. Those words are: “China’s Dream”. What’s that mean? It’s left unexplained. The two words stand alone. One interpretation, he said with a grin and a shrug of the shoulders, is that it means true world power, means China taking its proper place at the head of the world. My friend H.J. and I listened with interest.

I have gotten to know many young (almost all born after 1990) educated “PRC Chinese” in the past year. I don’t necessarily see in them a world-imperial ambition. On the other hand, it’s not so hard to imagine a global version of the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia (i.e., economic colonization).

bookmark_borderPost-270: Leading the English Orientation

Every two months is a new semester here at the Korean Language program (at which I’ve studied a while at a university in the Seoul region), you see, so new students are always flowing in. On the last day of last semester, sometime in the days before Christmas, our teacher suddenly asked me if I would be okay to do the new student orientation. I said that’s fine. I was asked simply because I am now the highest-level returning native English speaker here (Level 4).

There is one White American girl I formerly studied with, only about 19 years old, I think (and a a full-time regular enrolled student here taking classes in Korean and taking intensive language classes on the side), who was recently promoted to Level5 (the highest level offered here; those who want to do level 6 have to go elsewhere). She is unable to do it because she is back in the USA for the long between-semester break (which is from before Christmas to March 2nd in Korea). There is also a Singaporean — whose name in English consists of the unlikely initials Q.X. (based on a Chinese spelling) and whose Korean name by which I know her is rendered in initials as T.S.S. She is just as much a native speaker as I am, I think. She will study filmmaking at a Korean university in 2015-2016. She may have been more qualified to do the orientation in one sense: She has lived in the dormitory a long time, which I never have. As it turned out, many students’ questions were about dormitory life.

Anyway, yes, besides T.S.S. and I, there are no returning students in Level 4 or Level 5 (the highest level); almost all Chinese. They asked me. I agreed. I will write a bit about how it went.


The boss, the Chinese translator, and me all met three hours before the orientation started and ate lunch together and got a drink from the little campus coffee shop. The boss paid. (I decided this was no time for meekly asking for the cheapest drink, as I might usually do, and instead I got fresh strawberry juice, the most expensive of all.) Later I and the Chinese translator were given two textbooks for our new levels free as compensation (value: 40,000 Won or $36 USD). I still had to buy five others, total: 70,350 Won ($65).

This lunch and orientation practice were a particular honor in themselves, as I see it, because it is almost certainly the only chance I will ever have to have a conversation with the head boss. Being all in Korean, this was stressful for me. The Chinese translator, a bespectacled Chinese-Korean girl born in the early 1990s, said nothing at all; during lunch I tried to keep things moving conversation-wise, asking the boss questions (which I know is not the Asian way, but which the boss welcomed), though I know I used much wrong grammar.

The boss was a Korean woman in her 40s, characteristically (both) somewhat frantic and rather intimidating. She was more relaxed today, as we had all just come off two weeks’ Christmas and New Year’s vacation. I learned that she had lived in the USA for some years, I think she said from 2002 to 2006. The subject came up when she asked us, over lunch, what we thought of life in Korea. I said something like, “There’s a lot of English around”, and pointed at the walls of the cafeteria in which we were sitting, where slogans in English were printed: “Delicious Food”, “Eat Healthily” and this kind of thing. The boss impressed me by reading even the English slogan written in elaborate cursive.

We practiced the orientation, which consisted of us going through the text together for a while, then going off alone to “practice”. This was all pretty easy because it was just reading, so I thought. Soon we were in front of the room full of 25 or 30 new people. To my surprise (and she hadn’t warned us) during the orientation she went off-script, started saying other stuff, and told us to translate on the fly. This suddenly panicked me but I did alright. Then abruptly the all-together orientation ended and I was off with the English speakers to do a more detailed orientation with questions/answers in English alone.Many of them were not true English speakers but of various non-Chinese backgrounds. All non-Chinese are called “foreigners” in the Language Program community. There were about 15 new “foreigners”, and few were true native speakers. One was a woman born in the 1970s from Kazakhstan (Level 4). Besides her were various sorts of Asians, some Koreans from Abroad, and five Western Whites: two Norwegians (there are an inexplicably large number of Norwegian exchange students in South Korea), one Canadian, and two White-Americans (one of whom I’d met before, who is in Korea two years on a Fullbright something-or-other, teaching in a city down south; the other was a male born in 1993 who kept making sarcastic side comments or ‘suggestions’ during the English-only orientation — but that was fine and it livelied things up).

The English-only orientation, I resolved, was going to be fun, and it was. I remember my own, when I was a new student. The leader was of Chinese-Malaysian parents but who had lived a long part of her life in Australia. She just read entirely from the book. This orientation I tried to make light and fun, not strictly business. I kept asking people if they had questions, which many did. Of course they would; they’re new. I answered as best as I could, and those quesitons I couldn’t answer I asked if anyone else could in the room. One question was about the TOPIK exam (Test of Proficiency in Korean) and I hadn’t taken it; one of the two “Koreans Abroad” in that orientation had taken it and talked a little about it.

It was fun and active. I was proud of it. I went home. The next day I would be back in class, listening again. (The standard Korean for “attend class” is literally  “listen to class”). So it goes.

bookmark_borderPost-269: Hearing the Beatles in Korea (Or, the 1910s vs. the 1960s vs. the 2010s)

Bucheon is a community nestled snugly in the Seoul Megalopolis. I lived and worked there two whole years and still go there frequently. One late Friday evening, around about August 2014, I found myself walking through Bucheon’s Central Park (부천중앙공원).

Would you believe what I heard?

I heard the Beatles.

Not the real Beatles. Not a recording. I heard clearly-recognizable renditions of Beatles songs, these being songs first released around fifty years earlier. Playing them, and rather well, was a lone Korean guy in his 30s or 40s. A small crowd was gathered around. He was asking for donations in the open guitar case but seemed to be playing more for the fun of it.


He was playing only Beatles songs. Nothing else. He was singing in English. The crowd was full of people born in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, yet they knew the songs and were into it.

Earlier that year (2014), when I was in the USA, I recall some fanfare around the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show (whatever that was) for the first time in February 1964. By my count, that is over fifty years ago. Beatles music is still very popular and recognizable even after fifty years, and across the world. I also recall the Beatles were very popular in Kazakhstan, with life size bronze statues of the four Beatles on a hill overlooking the city, erected sometime in the 2000s.


Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, date unknown (found online)

As I walked away after hearing a few songs, I figured that this seemingly-odd experience, hearing an all-Beatles impromptu cover concert in Korea in 2014, was a sign that cultural change has slowed significantly. (I jotted this down as an idea to write about but never got around to it; here it is five months late.) Fifty years of time separates us from the Beatles’ heyday now, but they remain music staples. Consider that 1914 and 1964 are as equally distant in time as are 1964 and 2014. I may be wrong about this, but I think very near nobody was still interested in 1914’s pop music in 1964.

Actually — and to kind of contradict my own point — I do know some pop songs of the 1910s and I actually think they’re rather good in their simple and innocent way. One my grandfather sang (which was a song from before his time as he was born in the 1910s himself) is called “K-K-K-Katie” about a stuttering young American conscript who has to leave his sweetheart, Katie, behind, to go fight in France. Another 1910s song I know is “The Last Long Mile,” also about a conscript explaining to us, through the gracefulness of song, that army training isn’t so hard after all, except, that is, for the “last long mile” of the twenty mile training marches.

Here is “The Last Long Mile”:

Here is K-K-K-Katie (1918)

bookmark_borderPost-268: My Real Eighth Birthday (Or, a Tribute to Germany 2007)

The year 2015 is here. January 1st of 2015 is my eighth birthday.

My real birthday is January 1st, 2007.

There are those who would say that my eighth birthday actually occurred many years ago. I concede that technically my body, a tiny version of it, entered the world many years ago, sometime back there in the 1980s, but to be honest I don’t remember that at all.

Let me tell you about the day my life began. It was 1/1/2007 and it was aboard an airplane. It lifted off from Dulles Airport in Virginia on 1/1/2007 with me on board. It was the first time I left the USA.

I was off to study a while in Germany. It was an overnight flight on which passengers were expected to sleep. How could I possibly sleep on my first day of life? Jesus. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. I kept staring ahead at the little screen showing the airplane’s progress overlaid on a map. The plane inched along, it seemed. I kept staring ahead in the blackened airplane cabin. No one stirred. Time had slowed down to a crawl to me. Something eventful was underway, I knew.

What a glorious thing it is to have clear memories of the first day one’s life.

Nervous excitement filled those first hours on the plane, and the first awkward and dizzying day in Germany itself, before I moved in with the host family. The feeling was something like the hours before playing in a football game. I played football in high school a while. We were always nervous before games, like soldiers in war must be before battle. I remember. (Little did we know at the time that football didn’t really matter at all.)

I spent most of 2007 in Berlin, Germany. It was a good time. I studied German and other subjects (in English).

I knew a little German at the time of arrival but not enough to do anything, and finding my way on the first two days, suitcases in hand, was quite a misadventure in itself. I still remember clearly the exchanges I had with people. The woman of about 40 whom I asked “Could you please help me?” (“Können Sie mir helfen?”) — I was utterly lost and completely new and alone — to which she replied with a curt “Wieso?” which is a word that generally means “Why?” but can mean “How so?”. I must’ve been a sorry sight. Being a Berliner, she was on guard, not sure what I was up to.


Statue of Frederick the Great / central Berlin
A monument I passed by and inspected many times.

I stayed till April with a host family who spoke no English. Lucky me. I learned German pretty well. By the spring months, people occasionally thought I was a native German, as long as the conversation was very brief and to the point. At one point around about May 2007 I got my hair cut in Magdeburg at the cheapest barber around, as it turned out manned by two Iraqis. They were sure I was a native German. I didn’t dare tell them I was an American, of course. They asked lots of questions. I simply said “Ich bin hier zu Besuch”  (I’m here visiting) and that satisfied them. Later, the street-corner Marxist professor, a native German, whom I describe in post-#246 (see the section entitled “Communists and Anti-Communists in Berlin” in #246), as I recall, didn’t do a“You’re not from here, are you?” till well after several short exchanges.) 

At some point I visited Poland for a week. I liked Poland despite its certain problems that would flummox a typical German who demands Ordentlichkeit (buses in Poland were reliably late; our Polish train broke down, forcing us all to deboard and stand around a few hours; a postcard to the USA took a full month to arrive). Poles have certain good qualities that I appreciated. They’re not so different from Germans, anyway, I concluded.

I met many good people and had many adventures. Two American friends (J.S. and G.S.) I met in Germany are still to this day close friends whom I see whenever possible. I traveled a fair amount around Germany (including an ambitious trip to the Bavarian Alps with another American friend, B.A., who sped down the Autobahn in our rented car). I made a point to stay towards the east, thinking the experience would be more authentic. It was all pleasant.

Later that year I (unexpectedly) ended up in Estonia for a while, also to study in a kind of short term student exchange thing with others from all over Europe. Estonia I often call “my favorite country,” but on reflection it was really a kind of extension of the time in Germany. German and Scandinavian influence in this region goes back to the era of the crusades or so, ending abruptly in 1940 with Stalin’s invasion, reinstated in summer 1941 with German liberation, and reimposed in late 1944 with the defeat of German arms in the east; considered by the Estonians, as I recall, as a national disaster. In the 1980s, the inherent pro-Germanic tendencies of the Estonians and Latvians (pro-Scandinavian, pro-German, and by extension pro-American/NATO now) came back to the fore, and independence came in ’91 after which Estonia dove back into the German sphere of influence, pegging its currency to the Deutsch Mark and all. The Estonia I knew felt not so different from Germany, just blonder, cheaper, with far fewer non-European foreigners than Germany but lots of Russians in the capital. The time in Estonia reinforced my positive attitude towards Germany and Europe as a whole.

Looking Back
Even at the time, I realized that my time in Germany completely changed my way of thinking.
I became a different, more optimistic person. Life became full of possibility not something to be endured; adventure was there to be had for those brave enough to seize it; life became fun. The day it began, 1/1/2007, is thus my true birthday.

I reluctantly returned to the USA in mid-August 2007. In fall 2007 and through 2008 I finished up my university degree. I got almost all A’s in classes I took after my time in Europe. (My grades before that had been less good.) In 2008, I even took classes I didn’t need to take, just out of interest. I got a good job and earned what I then thought to be a lot of money in 2008. Then, in 2009, I left it and went off to Asia (for the first time) for reasons I couldn’t quite explain at the time and cannot explain even now. You might be able to vaguely understand if you read this post.

A new year is a time for reflection, people believe. As I look back over “my eight years of life”, all signs point to that first year of life, in Germany in 2007, as the happiest and best time of all. Ich danke Dir, Deutschland 2007, für alles das Du mir gegeben hast. Thank you, Germany 2007, for everything!