My Return to Korea: Ghosts and Light

So I got to go back to Korea this past November/December, the week after Thanksgiving. I was going back to visit my Dad who's lived there since I moved there as a 10yr old kid but also to play several shows both on and off the American Army base. For those of you who are new to this info, yes, I lived overseas my whole life until I got to the Univ of GA after I graduated from High School in Korea. From Daegu American School, specifically. I had been back a couple of times for the first two summers of College but not since until a few months ago.

The trip was long and exhausting, as any 24hr journey would be. I got to watch a few movies on the plane so that was sweet.

I eventually arrive at Daegu International Airport and I'm greeted by my Dad and his new wife Korean wife Mina. When she and Dad came over to the US after Doug passed I wanted badly not to like her like a child living deep in some corner of my heart. I don't think one ever completely outgrows being a kid in some ways when it comes to your parents. I resisted and was cold at first in silent protest to my mother but her kind heart and pure humanity makes it very difficult to do so. When we met, she shook my hand and you can tell that she was holding herself back from instinctively hugging me. Her bright eyes were a little welled up with tears although she was trying not to cry for her sympathy and pain for me to keep the first meeting a simple, light one. The gravitas of the trip made that impossible. My chilly exterior melted right away. Most importantly, she and Dad are very good together. He's happy with her. That's much more important. Her humanity and love are as obvious to me as her nationality and seeing them together snapped me out of my infantile defiance real quick. 

We all hug and head to the car. It was crazy to see all of the signs in Korean and especially to see how much my city had grown during my 11 year absence. My Korean was sheit but I'm still vaguely conversational. I can still read and write but I say that loosely. I mean I know the letter of the alphabet but wouldn't dare claim to really be able to speak it that well. 

We arrive at their apartment in a busy, nice part of the city. I'm greeted with old pictures of me, Dad, Doug and the family even pictures of Dad when he was young that I've never seen. There are art pieces that I grew up looking at and pondering where they came from that I'm facing again. It's amazing what little things can bring back. Dad and I talk a bit, Mina prepares some food and I crash very soon. Especially because the next morning I have a radio appearance on Armed Forces Radio to talk about my story and help promote my performances lined up on the base there. I'm out like a light.

I'm up early and head out to Camp Walker, one of the three military bases in Daegu, it's the "main" one in terms of living. I'm greeted by a Korean intern Yehyeon and Sgt Dillard who will be conducting the interview. Both of them are very nice and Yehyeon has some excellent questions waiting for me. Turns out Sgt Dillard in from GA, woot woot! Small world, indeed. They  played my music, talked about my career, what I'm doing back, how I feel about it, etc. It was a fun segment and I head out to explore the old base a bit. 

I can't believe the amount of flashback I get in this place. Broad and specific memories come flooding back. I remember a track meet here. I remember smoking cigarettes pretending to be a badass there. I remember asking a girl out on a date for the first time (and getting shot the fuck down) here. I remember prom was here. I remember I got the game high tackles in a football game on this field. I remember my first wrestling practice was at this gym. I remember all kinds of things, good and bad. I can't help but think of all of the memories I made with my friends here but especially with my brother Doug. It was very difficult not to separate these things. Especially given that some of the most growth I had in my life was with him and in this place. 

My Dad and Mina came to pick me up and we all went to go get some coffee and eat. It's then that I meet my new Korean cousin Won Kyung (Claire is what she goes by for us dumbass Americans who can't pronounce anything tho;). We go to eat at a very rustic, old-school Korean restaurant out in the country  near the mountains that make my city of Daegu a valley city. It's beautiful out there. It's me, Dad, Mina and Claire and we all talk about everything and start to get to know each other. They're great people and I like them both a lot. We're family now after all. 

Dad and I immediately slip into quoting movies, music, poems and general talking shit in a way that requires a bibliography. We're total nerds about shit like that and it's part of how we bond. He tells me that he's very proud of me and what I'm doing. He himself is a published author and is asking me for tips and advice in getting his work out and how he should market it. That's kind of a big moment for me. He's been my mentor and guide for much of my creative life and he's asking ME for advice now. I'm very much my father's son and the similarities are striking. We even have the same cackle/hyena laugh that I'm justly accused of having. Take it up with Dad, if you have a problem with it. That's where I got it from ;) We have a lot of resolution with my Father in this trip too. We bring up a lot of painful things about our lives and we talk openly and honestly about a lot of things. I won't get more specific than that but a lot of things were put to bed and a lot of questions were answered that my inner child could only cry about. I'm a man now. We talked and shared and grew together.

Later on that evening I get to meet up with my dear dear friends from High School Matt and Adam. Matt was the very first musical collaborator/jam buddy I ever had and played guitar with me in high school when I didn't know shit. He's a hugely talented musician and taught me a lot about guitar early on. We were also inseparable friends. Matt's ethnicity is Philippino/Chinese and came to Korea from Hawaii. I therefore called him Samoa. This was a highly inaccurate observation and he told me not to call him that. It quickly became his nickname throughout our tiny high school :) Hahah! I don't know why that's so funny to me but he's such a great sport and has such a big heart, he let me get away with it. The first of several concessions, no doubt, to my eccentricities. So what's new.

Adam came to Korea from Alabama. Before I left Korea I had never really come across deep Southerners and his thick accent blew my mind. I was amused and charmed by him. I called him Bama and THAT quickly became his nomenclature too. Same scenario. He knew it was out of playful love and we too became inseparable.

Later that evening they met up with me outside of my Dad's apartment. I was standing on the corner waiting for them and when they walked up my heart almost burst with happiness. "What's up you motherfucker" never sounded so good as when it came from these fools. We hugged and went to sit down to catch up at a local coffee shop to get out of the Korean cold.

We talked about music, life, love and what's been going on for the last decade in our lives. Inevitably, Doug came up and we all shared memories from back in the day together. They knew Doug but through me mostly. Later they had all gone drinking with him and the consensus was the same as with most people who met him. He was unabashedly "himself" at all times, kind of damaged and brutally funny. The observations he would make would be crude, unbelievably eloquent, hysterically funny and, no matter how much it stung, would have an element of undeniable truth to it. That's Doug. He had that gift. He was loved for it. It's a great tragedy that he never understood that.

Samoa, Bama and I would hang out a lot for this trip.

The next day is the day I'm asked to speak in front of the student body, guests and faculty of Daegu American High School. Big honor but more importantly, what the hell do I say to these people?!? For me to stand in front of these students as a total stranger who happened to go to school there and make that matter somehow was a big challenge. I'm not a celebrity. I'm not a big deal. They have no idea what I'm doing here. That kept me up the night before. The high school was in a different building from when I went to school there. It would have been cool if it were in the same hallowed halls but it's still a big deal because the philosophy and circumstances are the same. I didn't sleep much that night.

It finally occurred to me that the only thing I could talk about is that I understand what they're going through and I've been on the other side now as a "grown up" to tell them that the struggle is worth it. I remember a distinct feeling that I was "missing something" by being in Korea when other American kids were in the US being "normal" kids. I came to Korea from Germany (where I was born and raised) and, yet, even I felt it. When you're a teenager the whole world is a mystery and a microscope that you can't escape from. Hormones make you clinically insane, the world is waking up inside your mind and heart and all you want to do is desperately be noticed and disappear at the same time. All this is true regardless but in Korea you feel like you might be missing out or that you're not getting the experience of being an American kid. I reassured them that they are and that when they grow up they will have that and more to talk about than their peers. I said that people will say "huh? you did? that's so cool! What was that like?". You don't get that in Korea because your peers are in Korea too but when you leave you will be noticed for having an interesting life. And it's true, because you will have had an interesting life by default. Embrace what makes you different because that has the most value.

I also wanted to encourage anyone with a dream to protect it and go after it. I pointed out that in all of the history of the Universe and humanity that there is only ONE you. YOU have never occurred in the history of the world before and when you're gone, YOU will never ever happen again. Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr decided not to follow his passion. Aristotle. Elvis. Shakespeare. These people will never happen again. Imagine if they let status quo let them suppress their passion.They're a perfect, special, unique mixture just as vast and different as anyone. It's something to treasure. You name it, the world would have been very very different without these people. But it takes courage to be yourself. I'm not a big deal at all but I'm making the decision to follow what I feel I'm put here to do. No question. If that can be translated into inspiration or, at least, contemplation then that's a good thing.

So I arrive at the school and I'm interviewed by Stars & Stripes which is a Pacific-wide publication and there are 3 different cameras (Armed Forces Korea, Stars & Stripes and Daegu American School) there for my "speech" and for my performance. No pressure, right? They wanted me to play some music for the students as well. I see that there are students practicing guitar in the lunch room that will become the auditorium. They have a guitar program here now?? Awesome!

So the time comes and the students, faculty, my Dad, sister Charis (who lived there at the time and is now back in the US), and some other guests file in to hear what the hell I have to say. I gotta tell you, I was very very nervous. TV? Radio? Shows? Nothing. This? I was terrified. I was confident in how I wanted them to feel but I wanted to make sure that it came across through my shaking on the inside.

Everyone files in and I'm introduced and handed the microphone. Here we go.

I tell them first of all that I'm not a big deal and that I'm working hard on what I love. I pointed out how very special every individual person is and to not forget that, and also how much life experience they're getting being raised in such a different place. It's something to appreciate and be thankful for, not something to scorn and try to avoid. Embrace it. They seemed to respond to it and there was a lot of head nodding, that I will go ahead and accept as agreement. If I thought they weren't listening because I'm boring, I think I would have died on the spot. I finish my speech and people clap and seem pleased. I'm much more comfortable by this point and I play a couple of songs.

It then occurs to me that when I was in High School, I was the "music guy" and that there's likely a "music guy" that's there now. I asked the student body who that is and they all pointed unanimously in the direction of a seat in the back of the room occupied by a student named Patrick. They all said that's the guy. I saw him earlier playing guitar in the guitar class so I knew at least I wasn't gonna call out a pianist. I invited him up to play a song and he shook his head in sheer terror. I said "that's silly man, you should always take any chance you can to do what you love" and the students started cheering for him to go up to play and I took off my guitar and held it out in his direction. He eventually came up and I handed it to him. He played a Jack Johnson song and played it very well. The students and guests freaked out for him and he got roaring applause from them. He ended up in the news publications too as a result. You never know. Good for him for stepping up to the plate.

That was a pretty amazing experience for me and I took a bunch of pictures with the students afterward, signed some things and all that. Patrick told me that that was a great experience and thanked me for asking him to come up to play. I told him to never back down from opportunity and to always follow your passion. I told the newspapers in the interview that if even ONE student was in some way encouraged to follow their hearts or feel less out of place, then I have wildly succeeded in my appearance. It seems that at least Patrick may have been that student. I hope so.

Later on that night I played my first show of two on the base and it was pretty fun. Got to see more old friends, make new ones and connect with my past. Mr Chandler was the man who set it all up and it wasn't until I saw him that I realized I knew him in my childhood. Really funny, no nonsense type and a nice guy. We worked together for both of the shows I played on the base. Memorable in their own ways but nothing can touch the experience of the speaking engagement.

Two of the folks I was excited to see were Cho and his wife Tae Eun. Cho and I were roommates at UGA when he was an exchange student and we were very close. We knew Tae Eun in college too and they met at UGA. When I got to UGA I mostly had foreign friends my first year and a half of school as I was just as lost as they were, I just didn't talk like I was. Cho, Doug and I had many many drunken philosophical nights together, episodes of epic tomfoolery, hungover breakfasts and shared highs and lows together. I lost touch with Cho for some time and he reached out to me by sheer luck about a month before I got to Korea. He didn't know about Doug yet so I let him know through chat and that was a big topic waiting for us in Korea.

Cho and Tae Eun came from Seoul to see me and I got to meet their precious, precious daughters. One is 6 and one is 4 and they called me Uncle the whole time (in Korean of course). We talked about how sick Doug had been all along and how terrible it is for such a wonderful spirit to not understand its own value to the world. It's so sad. We talked seriously, of course, but we focused on the hysterically funny moments we all shared and how we helped shape each other. We were both in tears of laughter several times. I always site Cho as having a huge impact on me. He's a genius. Legitimately. But he also has a big heart that naturally gravitates to the truth about Goodness. He doesn't get bogged down in the negative and, believe me, he's been hit hard in his life. We shared a lot and it was so great to see them and for me to meet darling my nieces and reconnect with Tae Eun too as she was a constant figure in our college days. She too has an element of genius about her and has a wildly loving, fearless, curious and humanity exploring heart. I can only imagine how incredible my darling nieces will be, coming from such a loving and talented gene pool. 

I also played a show at a Korean venue called Horus Music Garage for my friends and fans who were not affiliated with the military, therefore couldn't see me play on the base. There were several friends from back in the day who came out for that and picked up some new fans while I was at it. Even Cho, Tae Eun and the kids were there (at 11pm at a music venue) because the kids were in tears and threw a fit earlier that day that they couldn't see their Uncle play music. Cho argued with them but lost. I know that looks like a bad parental decision on paper but the venue was great and the people were kind. It was late and out of place but not a bad place for the kids to be. Cho and Tae Eun taught the kids a great lesson by letting them be there. Living life is more important than sticking to a schedule sometimes. Cho and I live by that. Very awesome that he teaches that to his kids. I also played the Dave Matthews song "Satellite" there, which has its own history for me. It's been possibly the most impactful song for me in my life. I remember I was on the school bus in Korea on my way home from school and I heard it on the radio. It was THAT moment that I decided to start playing out more and my fledgling imagination started creating action. I have had the "music bug" my whole life, no question, but it was around that time that I said "I can't get over this song, it's perfect and I must do this". Weird but true. When I started playing it at the show and there was a girl in the crowd who freaked out because the likelihood of hearing that song from an acoustic act is Korea is ZERO but she got to hear it. We shared that. I would have freaked out too. It was a good time and I drank my face off that night with my old friends who came out. As is customary. 

One thing that I did that I planned on for weeks was to go to Camp George, where Daegu American School was when I went there but is now just the elementary school, and walk to where my old house was that we grew up in. I remembered the way by heart. Still. It was an easy 20min walk and I had done it countless times as a kid. Some of the landmarks I remembered were still there but most of it had changed. It was interesting to see the evolution of the country and myself through this little sojourn. I even listened to "Satellite" on my iPhone at the very spot where I first heard it when I was a kid. Crazy. 

When I got to my old house, I was overcome with emotion. There it was. It's a business now but looks the exact same as when I lived there for 7 years. I remember our old cat Othello dying, which broke my little heart into a thousand pieces as I found his limp body and wept for hours with him in my arms. I remember fights in the house with my parents when I was a lost, crazy teenager. I remember my first crushes. I remember my first deep heartaches with girls. I remember Doug coming home after he accidentally, drunkenly slashed his thumb open and we had to take him to the hospital. I remember training for wrestling and all the other sports that taught me so much. I remember losing my virginity in that house. I remember talking on that balcony with Samoa and many of my beloved cast of characters trying to figure out what the hell we're all doing here. I remembered a lot of growing happening in that house. I wanted to go inside and sleep on the floor and let whatever spirit was left inside visit me. I wanted to talk with the house but could only stand outside of it and stare. I, like when I met Mina, wanted to instinctively go to it and hold it but had to settle with standing there and watching it with a flood of emotion inside and diplomacy and reserve on the outside. It's brick and steel but alive to me. I stood there for several minutes until I snapped out of it long enough to realize must I look like I'm casing the place to rob it. I walked away heavy hearted that I'll never have resolution for some things. It'll keep you fighting that way. Fighting is important. Fortunately, I'm hard wired to fight for Goodness and for life. It's a consolation that I must remember and cling to at dark times. Sometimes that's all there is. Sometimes that's all you have. It's priceless and needs to be protected. 

I spent more time with Dad and MIna and the gang. I also went to go check out an underground punk/experimental show that Samoa was playing drums for. He never played drums before and he's a beast now. Very cool to see him do his thing. He can do anything musically, really, and I'm always proud of people I love doing what they love. It's also something to fight for.

The trip was overall a huge success for me personally and professionally. On my way out, however, I became violently ill and couldn't hold anything down or in. Of all the food I ate there (Korean, Japanese, etc) it was a slice of pizza at the base that fucked me hard. It took a wrecking ball to my last night plans but in a way it was a blessing in disguise as I was so exhausted from that night that I slept for most of the plane ride home. Remember, it's not up to you necessarily what happens to you, but it's entirely up to you how you see it and take it.

The trip had a lot of joy, reunion, confusion, reconciliation and sadness to it. It was a big deal for me and it was great to go back to my roots and reconnect with people and parts of myself that have long been removed. 

I saw a lot of ghosts, if you will, while I was there but I saw far more light. 


1 comment

  • Shawn


    Excellent read. You did a good thing for Patrick. Hopefully success follows him. Much gratitude for a great description of the area. My time in Korea was also a valuable learning experience.

    Excellent read. You did a good thing for Patrick. Hopefully success follows him. Much gratitude for a great description of the area. My time in Korea was also a valuable learning experience.

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