Posted by: Bob Fisher | June 12, 2011

Michael Flanigan: A Nova Scotian in Korea

To listen to this podcast, click on the PLAY button below.

This podcast was recorded using Skype.

A borderless worldview

There are some individuals one meets “along the way” who inspire hope.

One such person is Michael Flanigan, a Canadian citizen and currently teacher of English as a Second Language in South Korea. I also use the latter descriptor (teacher) in the most comprehensive sense of that word because Michael is an educator in so many ways.  He is also a subtle, articulate, and funny wordsmith who embodies empathy, compassion, and vision, which have become priorities in an increasingly borderless world.

Michael is also a singer/songwriter, poet, humourist, social commentator, and a man for all seasons; in many ways he is the quintessential Renaissance Man.

A Facebook message from Michael

My drunken mind tonight traces steps to find you in my memories. We met on a hill in Annapolis Royal more years ago than I should think possible. I have not heard of/from you in a long time. We met again in Halifax. You were down for some assignment. I was a cat on hot bricks not knowing where to turn or what would happen in my murky future. I want to thank you here and now for your belief in me…. Nowadays, I’m living in the countryside, teaching English at a tiny university in Korea … not the Japan as I expected. Since last we met, I graduated with a BA in English, I took a year out, worked at a call centre and have been in Korea for the last five years. It’s a living and has the trappings of a life. Somewhere I found the desire to write songs and foist them upon other people. It would be a great honour to have you, the master, see what your student has been up to.

Michael Flanigan

The perceptive and imaginative use of language has always been critical to the expression of the self and the collective in human society. As you will hear us discuss in the podcast, the emphasis that Michael’s family placed on reading also played a key role in his evolution as a writer, actor, and journalist. Michael is also one of those talented individuals who is able to conceptualize, understand, and express universal themes and issues in human culture.

You can connect to Michael on Facebook by clicking here.

Michael’s Column in Seoul Eats

Eddie Paradise: A Treatise on the Korean Martial Arts

Writing under the nom de plume Eddie Paradise (Edward is his middle name and Paradise is the town in Nova Scotia where he grew up), Michael does an exposé on Korean martial arts. As usual, he writes in an articulate and in-depth style covering a lot of social history along the way.

How Michael made the news in Korea

Korea Joongang Daily

Seoul Players to Give Christmas Performance

Michael the Actor

A review in the Korea Herald

Michael the singer-songwriter:

“When Topper Comes Around”

Links Michael recommends regarding the Korean War

As Michael and I discuss in the podcast, there is a significant historical connection between Korea and Canada. That war, sometimes referred to as “the forgotten war,” was a key conflict in which Canada played an important role.

While it agreed to the principle of halting the aggression when North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel into the Republic of Korea, the Canadian Government initially did not commit its forces to action there. When the Second World War was over, Canadian armed forces were reduced to peacekeeping status, a role it continued to play and to be known for internationally. However Canada eventually entered that conflict as a member of the United Nations forces. On July 12, 1950, three Canadian destroyers, HMCS Cayuga, HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Sioux, were sent to Korea to serve under United Nations Command.

The film Brotherhood is the story of a Korean family’s inevitable involvement in this war.

The film Welcome to Dongmakgol, was South Korea’s official entry for the foreign language film category of the Academy Awards in 2005. It has been the fourth-highest grossing South Korean film of all time. As  a metaphor for the tragic incongruities of war, it also demonstrates the deep divides that human conflict can create.

An example of Michael’s prose

Uncle Alex

by Michael Flanigan

 He hates hospitals and always has. He’s always done his best to stay away from them and walks on the other side of the street should he come upon one. Once inside, the white rubber-lidded doors seal you in. Now, he cannot escape the smell; ever in the rooms, among the living and the dying, in bags, dripping into veins.

Enclosed spaces are the curse of living in a modern world. He considers this, trying to focus all his thoughts on how much he hates being in a crowed place, the smell, the faint rhythm, anything so long as he doesn’t have to think of the wasting figure lying on the bed. She is being slowly taken from him in this rubber-sealed place.

She stirs and opens her eyes. “What day is it, Uncle?” She speaks Russian to him, inflected with her American English. Her voice is music that was already soft, now fading slowly. He reaches down and strokes her hand.

“It is Friday, my little rat.” She smiles at the old diminutive. Tasia claims not to remember her parents. Perhaps this is true. It could be she does not know why she woke herself with her screams every night for three years and has ever insisted on sleeping with a light on.

It had started with a mistake, to interfere. In a far-off country town that had lost all its inhabitants, there was an empty grave where he should be, but who was to know? The descendants of his brother Matija once knew of an uncle named Alexi, it is true; but  that Alexi had died by a strange chance when Matija was twelve. The man had gone out walking one night and never returned. The peasants whispered, but nothing more was said. The family had moved and the name was forgotten, along with the name of the village.

Things had happened for a reason, perhaps. One night he’d stumbled (his prey had been drinking heavily) into a desperately striving section of his adopted city; to watch lives and scout for future souls who would serve as his meals. From one window came a sweet melody on a violin. Alexi would have known its song anywhere. It was a piece that they always played at weddings in his hometown. It was one of those quaint local customs. Alexi felt he was a boy again, bathing in that river that froze the blood while he laughed with those long-gone friends and threw stones at each other and laughed all the more. It was the sound of home. Through the window, he saw the young man who was playing the tune, all the while smiling Matija’s shy smile. The flat was no poorer than usual. It was decorated with all the ikons he remembered from his father’s house and the samovar that had been his mother’s pride, a gift from a distant cousin in St. Petersburg. In the later nights, in strange places, Alexi left gifts for the family, mostly shining trinkets to delight the eyes of the young child, whose shining eyes sometimes looked up at him from her cradle as he paced their rooms. She never made a sound.

He sits beside her hospital bed and remembers how it had all started with a tooth. She’d been wiggling it around for days, amazed that she could push it out and yet it stayed in. She insisted on pulling it out herself and proudly carried it to her bedroom to slip underneath her pillow because that was what the American children did. Nights afterwards he would find her staring at her gapped smile in the mirror. A new tooth grew in more and more fell out, but to him, it was that first one that precipitated all the other changes. He would look at the new tooth growing where there had been a blank space and think; “This is it; this is how my heart begins to break.”

There had to be explanations, excuses and finally outright lies for everything; why he could not take her to the playground on Saturday afternoons like all the other fathers, why it was Sava, his old servant, and not he who would walk with her to school in the mornings, and why she only ever saw him at night. It was only when the pestering questions became overwhelming that he would look into her eyes and silence her with his lulling gaze.

He remembers how promises had been made; to God, to himself and, in the spaces of his still heart, to her. She would be cared for, cared for as his own, but never would it come to this. He kisses her forehead; leaving her to the morphine. He shouldn’t be here. Sava has brought the car around front, waiting for his master. He is leaning on the hood, smoking and making lewd comments to passing nurses in a peasant dialect that is no longer spoken any more. He looks up.

“Get in, get in” He says, “It’s as cold as my dead wife’s tits out here.” He says this in English for the benefit of the nurses who turn away from him.

“It is the whip and not the horse who decides the journey.” replies Alexi, as he always does whenever Sava is being insolent. Sava has always been insolent. The car takes them through the Holland Tunnel, into the reaches of the Upper West Side. From time to time Alexi looks up to see Sava’s dark eyes staring intently at him in the rear-view mirror.

“Well, what are you going to do?”

Alexi sighs and leans back in the seat.

Sava hits the steering wheel so hard it bends slightly and gives out a grunt.

“Fucking Christ, you fool. You know what you have to do. She is dying back there and you sit there on your ass and do nothing.”

“You should think very hard about your next words, slave.” Alexi is now beside him in the front passenger seat, his hand resting on the back of Sava’s neck. Sava shrugs it away.

“Do you think I’m scared to die, actually? I should have been dead one hundred sixty years ago. That’s a long time to be anybody’s slave. You wouldn’t have been anything without me.” Sava spits into the floor-mat before continuing.

“Every night, I sit up to tell you what was going on outside, in the world; keep you from going insane. Didn’t I help you come to this stinking country? Every morning, I took her to school. God help me, I had to learn fucking English to get around this dog-shit country. That was no easy time, let me tell you. She can look after you now. I’m sick of it.”

Sava exhales noisily. Alexi turns to look out the window. They say no more to each other for the rest of the journey.

Tasia’s father, Grigori, was simple and kind. Grigori was a boy in a man’s world.   He had seen something he should not. These things happen every day. People have their eyes everywhere, especially when information can get you killed or make you rich. Grigori thought he had run far enough.  They had come to this country, and Alexi had followed; not knowing why, except that he knew he could not bear to be without them. Sava had made the arrangements; but grumbling.

In the new country, Alexi would walk under the family’s window every night, and wait for them to sleep. He listened to their breathing and their slowing hearts, committing the sounds to memory. The men who had been hunting them had come to take them in daylight. There was nothing to be done. Walking towards their building, he could hear her sobs all the way down the block. He burst into the room. It was sprayed in blood, with two bodies sprawled lazily on cheap kitchen chairs. Her tiny sounds lead him to the closet. He opened the door and stroked her face. He spoke to her in Russian. She didn’t seem to understand. He tried again, in faltering English.

“I am your uncle. My name is Alexi. Come.” She then followed him into the night and a new life, calmed by his voice. It does not seem very long ago now.

Now, as he mounts the stairs, he remembers how the halls of the old brownstone used to ring with her laughter in the afternoons. In the depths of his day-sleep he could hear the sound. In the kitchen, Sava was muttering about something as he prepared her meals. Even as he slept, he could hear her laughter and the tentative music she made on the old violin that moved in and out of his waking dreams. Sometimes in the evenings she would ask him to play for her and smiled to hear the old melody from the place she had long forgotten. At times, he can forget some things.

One birthday, she asked him to take her to the park in the afternoon, just once. For three nights prior, he gorged himself, hoping it would be enough to sustain his body in the sun. He’d never felt so weak. His every step was a hundred pounds of wet clay as she skipped along at his side. He was bundled up tightly, even for late fall. He knew if he lost concentration even for a moment, he would start to burn. Old and powerful as he was, he had to bite down the urge to cry out and claw at the dirt in order to get away. The park looked very different in daylight.

She got on the swing and demanded a push. He barely had the strength but somehow he managed. She sailed up into the sun and was to him lit up like an ikon. She jumped off and ran to him. She buried him in the leaves and he was grateful for their musty coolness. He knew he had to pop up to roar like a monster that was bent on eating her up. It was the game they played. He lingered a second, gathering the strength then jumped to his feet and gathered her in his arms. The sunlight stung his eyes and he was frightened. It was so hot out here. The park was all but deserted. He was just another father playing with his daughter in the leaves. She gave out a small cry and he soothed her. It was only a little. She would soon forget.

He arranges for her favourite flowers to be delivered to her room every morning. The nurses call her room “the greenhouse” among themselves. However he tries, he cannot help but smell her sickness. In a hallway, a few doors down from her room, a doctor tries to tell him something, and he pretends to speaks only little English; playing the baffled immigrant.

A nurse takes his hand. “Mr. Berikoff? Your niece is very sick.”

He nods rapidly “Yes, yes, very sick. You will make her better, yes?” He doesn’t want to know. They cannot make him know. The woman’s eyes are full of feeling.

“I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for her.” She starts to say something about “quality of life.” He turns from her and walks towards Tasia’s room. A peasant could weep now, he thinks. He’d be tearing his clothes and wailing this place down. I am a dignified foreign gentleman. They do not dare to approach me.

Why did she have to go so far away to university? Were there not perfectly good schools here? She patted his hand and promised to call often. Her eyes were shining. She was going away to a city she’s never seen. Sava drove her, coughing and swearing the whole way. He carried her several suitcases and boxes to her room and drove off, saying nothing. Three months later, she started getting headaches. Now she is lying here.

She stirs at the sound of his step and opens her eyes. “How are you tonight, Uncle?” she says. He crosses the room and sits beside her on the bed. The smell of her death is metal on his teeth.

“I have heard good news tonight, my love. The doctor says you’re going to be well.”

She shakes her head and smiles. He sits beside her and strokes her hair; speaking slowly.

“No, no, believe me. You’re going to get better, I tell you. Now sleep. You’ve had a very long day and I know you’re tired.”

Her eyelids fall. He switches off the machines. The mattress yields to their double weight as he lies beside her. No longer thinking, he brushes back her hair from her neck. Her heart beats slowly. The taste of her is acrid, a thousand miles from a memory that torments him. She is very still, now. Her heart is a slow whisper. He makes a small cut and brings her face to his neck. Her fingers close around his shoulders. He feels he is slipping away, under the wet leaves.

A link recommended by Michael

Because of his keen awareness of the mysteries of the mind, I quite understand why Michael recommended this link.

“The surprising truth about what motivates us

Michael’s Music Youtube Channel

To see and hear more of Michael’s songs, click here.

Links to Korean Destinations

VisitKorea, the official website of the Korean Tourism Organization

Seoul Highlights

Gyeongju, Michael’s favourite destination in Korea

Gyeongiu Travel Highlights

Visit Korea (Canada)

You can reach Michael by email at

Images courtesy of Michael Flanigan

Do you know South Korea?

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  1. He really deserves the showcase!!..Great singer, songwriter, all around artist…and a great colleague!!

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