Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dying to play: online gaming kills?

The first time I heard of someone dying in a PC bong (Internet Café) in Korea, I was shocked.

How could this happen?

I clicked the headline which informed me that after nearly 12 straight hours of gaming, a 19 year old university student died in a PC bong in Ulsan. After reading the details, I didn’t even think to look and see if anyone else had ever died in a PC bong from over-gaming. This seemed to be an exception. An exhausted university student collapsed from exhaustion.

Gaming alone didn’t kill him.

Did it?

I decided to talk to my teens about it, who seemed to shrug at the occurrence.

Teaching English abroad I have found, usually the things that are most shocking to me are everyday occurrences for my students. See especially Comparing attitudes toward cheating in Korea and Russia.

Despite the reactions, or lack of reactions, from my students, I maintained my assumption.

Death from online gaming can’t occur that often.

Can it?

This was back in December.

I later found out that my students didn’t react much to the news because computer addiction is something they are much too familiar with.

Today BBC news reminded me of what I had written off as a freak occurrence. Opening their homepage, I read “Chinese online gamer dies after three-day session.” After clicking the link and looking at the headlines for related articles, including “South Korean children face gaming curfew.” I realized this is a huge problem.

The problem is not isolated to Korea.

It is by no means a recent development.

AND it happens relatively often.

In fact, it happens so often that BBC only covers the most extreme cases. A google search of “Korean gamer dies” did not immediately pull up the case I had read about in December.

In a culture where perfection and overwork is highly valued at academies, in schools, and at work, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same is true for gaming.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Aronofsky does not create for the casual viewer

I was reminded of this essay and the catharsis I experienced, when I watched Aronofsky's latest film, Black Swan. His technique remains basically the same, gut-wrenching moments, a memorable overture, and shock.

Written in 2003.

Take a book. Internalize it. Add perspective. Personalize it. Shake. Visualize it. The essence of Requiem for a Dream on the screen becomes reality.

I had no idea what I would experience that night: the trauma my mind would be put through, the roller coaster of emotions I would feel. It was a sad movie, people repeatedly told me, a really sad movie, but what was I to do? It sounded enthralling, and I had heard it was good, really good. No one could put his finger on the right word. No one could explain. I had no clue.

Hit play.

A look and I broke down. After five minutes of staring at credits rolling, shocked, not being able to think, breathe, cry, speak, I broke down. I curled up into fetal position and cried. I cried for the world, for the addicted, for the abused, for the misled, for myself. I cried because there was nothing else I could do. I cried because words seemed wrong at that moment.

Few words were uttered, and I began to read. I read out of wonder, awe, and curiosity. I could not comprehend what had just taken place in my mind, what had happened. I read for answers. I read for freedom. I read because words seemed wrong at that moment. I read because I was addicted and couldn’t speak.

The reading added thoughts, themes, love. I went from being distressed and unnerved to elated and euphoric; then back again. Laughing, crying, sobbing, staring, I comprehended. I connected. I loved. I hated.

A road block. I stopped reading. I didn’t want to. I wanted to quit school. I wanted to read and read, to read not only Requiem (as I had so affectionately termed it), but all of Selby’s work. I wanted to read until the sky turned red. Addicted, I carried the book around until I could read again. I was irritable. I hated work. I hated school. I hated Thomas Hardy. I hated anything that kept me from reading.


Finally! I could read again. I had to read. The reading sustained me. It gave me reprieve during my breaks. Requiem helped me to survive those long nights. Then it ended.

It just ended. I had finished, but I didn’t feel an ending. I was in shock. I couldn’t cry; although I wanted to. I couldn’t read; there was no more. I had to let it soak in before I watched the movie again.

I waited.

That was Thursday night. I worked on Friday. By Saturday the book still hadn’t sunk in. There was no end. There was a conclusion but no end. The last section was forced. It couldn’t end.

Hit play.

Notes: The first lines are the same. They used actual lines quite frequently. The satisfaction. Flash through the first half of the book and then delve, connect, appreciate. Love. Marion and Harry really love each other, it is visible in their faces, eyes, body language. Amazing screenplay, cinematography, acting: intense, piquant, horrific. I wanted to stop watching. I’d seen it before. I knew what was to happen.



The book and movie compliment each other. I understand. I heard the same story from two different people. Different tools. Pictures versus words. Music versus language. Sight versus imagination. Different ways of telling the same story.

Selby used writing. His form of communication; a unique style that acquaints the reader and then immerses him into dialog and setting. Both are connected so closely that the reader feels present. Not as if the scene were being described, but more realistic, like he is there internalizing the scene. The reader becomes involved.

But where the book involves the reader, the movie imprisons the watcher. Impulse. Addiction. It enables an unknown world to be comprehended. Relate. Not one piece on the set or one action or thought of the actors is random. Every unpainted wall, every movement, every thought, every spec of dust has meaning. The actors are no longer actors, they have become Harry or Marion or Sara. Thoughts can be seen in their gestures, on their faces.

Details from the book are left out while others are added, but the viewer knows it is the same story. Nothing is upsetting about the adjustments and adaptations. There is no room for scrutiny. There is no room for independent thought. Deciphering Requiem’s themes are the viewer’s sole purpose; Aronofsky maintains complete control.

Control of emotions. Controlled chaos. Control through flashing cinematography and heartfelt music. Pushing the viewer right to the edge. Forcing her to look down. The pit. The empty darkness of a life not lived. The sorrow of a life dreamed away. This outer limit doesn’t inspire the viewer (that’s the wrong word), but demands her to remain under the control of two perspectives, two men: the Selby and the Aronofsky.

The release.

And the message must be decoded. Live life. Don’t dream life. Love the intangible. The overture runs on, continuing in the viewers mind. Reminding her to live, to have vision. Reminding her to experience, to not sit around letting life pass her by. The major theme of the book was not lost. The adaptation remains a success, more then a success, a masterpiece, a work of art.

Requiem for a Dream must be pondered, loved, hated, and internalized. Aronofksy does not create for the casual viewer.

Boys and Girls: Comparing teenagers in Moscow and Ulsan

In Moscow, on vacation, watching teenage girls and boys interact outside of the Starbucks on Old Arbat Street, I was reminded of how teenagers can be. They hugged. They kissed. They chatted comfortably about life. They enjoyed themselves. As I watched them, I sighed. It was a breath of fresh air.

It seemed more natural and more normal than the lives of teens in Korea.

In Korea I have hardly ever seen groups of teens out and about with idle time, just hanging out. Where are they? and what are they doing? I assume they are wasting away inside an Internet café or in front of a computer or television at home, obsessed with computer games, television shows, and admiring the latest pop groups. Alternatively, they are studying like mad for the next exam or locked inside an academy.

Of course, freedom isn’t always a good thing. Without adult supervision, Russian teens smoke on the street. They gather at public squares, chat, goof-off, and, yes, drink.

What a bunch of hooligans.

Russian boys and girls make-out in the metro. They talk and interact.

Life is good. They appreciate it. They feel it.

They fall in love. They get hurt. They recover.

Korea attempts to avoid all this drama and deliquency, which is why teens are separated, stressed over exams, and under lock and key.

Angela, just graduated from elementary (which ends after 6th grade here), and she is now headed to middle school. This should be an exciting point in her life. A new school. New possibilities. The ability to redefine who she is, who her friends are, and where she wants to go in life. Most other places, she might also be excited about meeting new boys …

But, she lives in Korea.

Talking to Angela the other day and reading other students’ diaries, I discovered that Korean middle schools aim to make “perfect” teenagers. It’s important to conform and not much value is placed on individuality.

Since Angela’s hair is naturally a lighter shade, a brown instead of a black, she will have to dye it. Additionally, she will have to cut her hair to shoulder length, like all the rest of the girls. The uniform she wears will be the same dull gray as everyone else’s. She will wear the same stockings and possibly close to the same shoes as all the other girls.

When it comes to boys … Angela’s public middle school will be an all girls school, which will reinforce her unwillingness to work with boys. Luckily because she plays computer games where she can interact anonymously, in a virtual world, she will not be completely cut off. Even when she is not on the computer, she will continue to interact with some boys, via text messages, but face-to-face interaction will be severely limited and restricted.

Teenagers in Korea do not hang out in mixed groups of boys and girls, that I have seen. Their schools are separate. Their friends are separate. They are separate, except at academy where they usually refuse to work together.

Russian teens stand in stark contrast to this. They flirt. They usually only pretend not to want to work with the opposite sex. Often they need to be separated just so they can concentrate. In the classroom they seem to provide good evidence for why Korea has developed a culture of division. But having girls and boys separate leads to increased shyness and awkwardness when the two groups are forced to work together.

Before Korea and even a couple months into working here, I might have supported the segregation of boys and girls, but after returning to Moscow and seeing the contrast, I realized there’s something special about being a teen and growing up with peers that are both girls AND boys.

There is a precarious balance created by interactions of girls and boys. And being a teenager seems to be, in part, about indulging in emotions of love and heartache. Making value judgments and choices. And just living.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Moscow through rose tinted glasses?

Of course, before I arrived back in Moscow, I was anticipating it. I romanticized the city. I recalled memories of imposing architecture and good times with friends. I imagined a Moscow covered in fresh, clean snow, magical in its quiet embrace. I put on my rose-tinted glasses and prepared to protect them from the brisk, unfriendliness that I knew Moscow to be.

I walked out of customs and into the airport prepared to fight off ten taxi drivers at once. To my surprise, there were only a handful of taxi drivers and only two asked me if I needed a taxi. The storm I had anticipated, was merely two drops. I’m sure the security measures put in place after January’s airport atrocity probably hampered the plans of many freelance taxis. Completely underwhelmed, I navigated my way through the Sheremetovo airport to the train station.

My second encounter, buying a train ticket. While I stood behind an arguing couple, obviously unfit to travel together, I prepared to not even get a “Hello” or any eye contact. Instead, the woman greeted me quite warmly. She even smiled at my obvious American accent. I assumed it was a fluke, an anomaly, that soon, I would be back in harsh Moscow with pushing Babushkas and dissatisfied service people.

Previously I had the impression that Russians tended to be like me, a bit cold on the surface but once you get to know us, warm and inviting. I also had the impression that this attitude in a city the size of Moscow leads to a harsh reality. Yet this visit proved me wrong.

Rather than having my rose-tinted glasses smashed to a thousand pieces while being jostled in the crowded metro, I ventured to take them off, only to find that Moscow looked the same without them. Actually, Moscow looked better without them. My romanticism of Moscow did not include fairly good customer service, which happened the whole second day I was there and surprisingly continued. I had several waiters stop by to ask how the meal was. Waiters who smiled and said my friend and I were beautiful (in a city like Moscow I will take this as a very high compliment) …

Things in Moscow are changing, customer service is getting better, or perhaps, Moscow, in February, as an informed, bright-eyed “tourist,” is different than as a disenchanted English teacher waiting for vacation and spring.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Contemplating Moscow: what should have been posted February 1st

I’m not sure when or how it happened, but Moscow captured my heart. I know it wasn’t love at first sight. At first sight, I was too exhausted to noticed and too bewildered to understand. At first sight, I was overwhelmed and intimidated. I was amazed and challenged. Unsuspecting and homesick.

I had an inkling that Moscow changed things when I left that first summer. I missed Moscow, not just my friends.

Upon my first return in August 2009, I couldn’t contain my excitement and smiled like a madman in the airport while being accosted by taxi drivers (in Russian). I enjoyed being expected to know Russian. Many Muscovites, while they may know some English are unapologetic in their presumptions that I know Russian. I take it as a compliment and a challenge, even though my Russian remains horrible.

When I heard about the January bombing in the airport, my throat seized, my stomach lurched and my heart stopped.

Oh, Moscow.

My heart belongs to you.

Author's note: It would not be completely honest of me to say that my heart belongs fully and completely to Moscow ... but it sounds nice, doesn't it?

I have considered that perhaps it’s the challenge that Moscow presents. It’s by no means an easy life. Oh sure, the metro makes travel convenient, but there's also the cold and the stores and the challenge of paying rent and buying groceries. The language barrier and the disorientation that occurs when you walk out of the metro into a new area. The first impression “coldness” of people and the harsh reality. Lack of modesty. Lack of customer service. Lack of “common” business sense, perhaps due to the 90 years of not needing it.

There is a saying that Russians have about marriage. Women get bored. So, men, you should keep something about yourself to reveal every 5 years.

Change, challenge, and enigmas …

That’s what makes up Moscow. Every time I thought I had something figured out, life would prove that I was wrong. Each time I thought I could easily walk over that patch of ice, I fell down. Each time I thought I could say something coherently in Russian, an older lady at the shop would look confused or glare at me for my misunderstanding of grammar.

Yet, there was beauty in the mystery as well. In the midst of winter, when it’s been overcast for months, old snow is on the ground, and everything looks gray, suddenly the sun will come out and reveal how beautiful Moscow can be. I would stumble off the beaten path, onto a new park, into a new art gallery, or meet someone new. The Soviet Architecture that previously helped weigh my spirits down would suddenly lift them up. A fresh snow would put a sparkle in my eye ...

These thoughts filled my heart and head before I headed out for my brief, one week vacation, in Moscow.