“Here, it is Bieber,” by Patrick Haas

Jan 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Here, it’s all Bieber. During week one in Daegu, “Korea’s most colorful city,” which is actually, “Korea’s card catalogue of faded gray sky scrapers, overcast skies and endless stream of black Hyundai’s,” I digress into the infantilization that occurs when relocating to a new country. Neon signs are everywhere: small dashes and zeroes mixed into an array of disfigurement as if someone has jumbled the shapes together in a felt bag and then blindly arranged them into miniature squares. My rationalized excuse for not yet enrolling in Korean lessons is that I’m afraid Korean words might lose their beauty. What are probably cell phone adverts and other mindless billboard messages look like oversized scrabble pieces, as if the whole, uniform city is actually a playing board being used to somehow score points in life. In other words, they look  like potential – an untapped, grab bag of potential hovering over my head, lighting the way toward companionship, or at least the ability to order something other than ear-shaped dumplings, or apologize when I forget to use both hands when giving something to another person.

But Bieber. My first Saturday here I’m sitting in a café, uploading pictures onto my computer, so I can upload them onto my Facebook page, so I can stare at them while I’m looking over my life according to online social networking wasteland.  I sit in the corner, desperate to look busy. A friend here told me that Korean baristas will feel sorry for you if you show up at a café alone. “They think you don’t have any friends. They’re genuinely sorry for you.”

I’m focusing, uploading pictures on my profile page, trying to look like someone who has a lot of friends when Justin Bieber’s song “Baby” comes on for the third time in one hour.  Normally, I wouldn’t care.  Or I would, because I imagined I’d be sipping green tea on a bamboo coffee table, sitting cross-legged on the floor and smoking ridiculously cheap Marlboros while listening to Korean hip-hop.  But no.  Here, it’s Bieber.  Nobody can escape the international, clean cut, high school-aged sensation.  Across the room from me, a Korean man mouths the lyrics and nods his head from side to side as if he’s half-heartedly trying to shake water out of his ear. I’m  not sure, but I think I’ve been tapping my foot since the song started, although I won’t admit it if you ever ask me in person, especially in front of other people.  “Bieber?  Don’t really know him.”

But I’m not so different from Bieber, I realize.  It may be a stretch, but his Wikipedia page says his mother’s name is Patricia. My name is Patrick, no? Just like Justin Beiber’s mom. What else?  Apparently as a youngster, Beebs was a percussionist.  I, too, am a percussionist, first playing piano and then beginning drum lessons after 8th graduation when I received my fist drum set, a CB700 beginner’s kit.  The cymbals looked like cardboard circles covered with tin foil and sounded about as good.  Nevertheless, it was mine and I loved it and beat the hell out of it until my parents got me “practice pads” and moved the drum set into the un-air conditioned garage in Phoenix.

Then I read this: “though a product of a middle-class suburban upbringing in Stratford, Ontario, Bieber’s manner of dress and speech (“Wassup man, how you doin’?” or “It’s like, you know, whateva’ “) suggest he’s mimicking his favorite rappers.”  Well, I too am a product of middle-class suburban upbringing.  In 8th grade, the year of my ascension at catholic grade school into campus wide superiority, I donned a starter brand Los Angeles Raiders jacket, via my obsession with Colors, an early Sean Penn movie about the Blood and Crips rivalry in the streets of LA.  In other words, I get what Bieber is saying.

And then I began another lie to myself – because I’m obviously American, or western, or a tallish Caucasian, I’m the minority, for the first time in my life.  And possibly, even stranger, I’m the only one sitting alone in the café.  But Bieber has come to my rescue.  While Korea is apparently obsessed with his music, I tell myself I have clout because I’m a real life American person.  And like in high school, as long as I was seen in the right scene, associated myself with the right people, I somehow had enough cred or “you know, whateva.”  Cred for what, I don’t know, probably nothing, but I told myself it was there and I had it, invisibly, while waiting for my photos to finish uploading.  Enough cred to get a job writing ESL children’s books for a language school because I speak English.  Enough cred to sell my own vocabulary just like Bieber sells his voice.  Mr. Stevens, a balding 27 year old who taught college algebra at my high school, coached the soccer team, and referred to me only as “Haas”, once said to our class, “Gentleman.  Potential means you haven’t done shit.”  Thanks, “Stevens.”  Maybe true back then, but now I roll with the likes of international pop stars.  Well, we don’t roll together, but we’re buds in a way because I get where he’s coming from and since he’s world famous and I work in an office in South Korea, our obvious western affiliations and masked teenage angst bind us spiritually.

There are over 70,000 hagwons, for-profit private language institutes, in Korea, and some are even popping up in the United States. And they seem to take any native English speaker with a college degree to drill vocabulary to classrooms of over-extended children. But it’s not my deal.  I’m new here. I’m just the writer.  I’m 32 going on 16, recently relocated to “the most colorful city in South Korea.”  I’ve seen carts of puppies stacked next to wire-meshed carts of chickens in the market downtown.  Massive pig hooves floating in bowls of water and piles of squid like soggy, deflated balloons.  Men and women my grandparents’ age squatting over vegetables and fruits, occasionally spitting onto sidewalks packed with sandaled pedestrians and, unbelievably, men on scooters weaving against the flow of pedestrian traffic.  The air smells like stagnant sewage, and then, almost suddenly, the sweet smoke of chestnuts roasting on sidewalk grills. Mountains surround Daegu, covered in pine trees, tipped off with clouds.  Crammed together like the dashes and zeroes of Hangeul words is a sense of mind numbing uniformity mixed with shocking particulars. Every new street is breathtaking, even if it’s the same as the one a block away.  Here, it’s Bieber, hour after hour, street after street, the same difference.

I turn my computer off when the song ends, drop my empty mug off at the café counter and step outside, trying to decide which way to go.  Both directions are equally anonymous.  I’m hungry, like usual.  What would Bieber do, I ask myself.  I swing my shoulder bag around my back, start walking into the cacophony of a side street, listening to the cacophony of a language I can’t yet understand. Then this:  an old man in a shiny, synthetic thread business suit stops me with a broad grin, says, “How are you fine.  A good day.”  And then he opens up his hands as if he meant, “What, do I have to spell it out for you?”


Patrick Haas still lives in South Korea, writing children’s storybook for an ESL school and using his free time to work on his essays.


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