Numb To Nothing
Occasionally, I find myself prey to an inexplicable feeling of dread, a near-certainty that something terrible is about to happen, but it never does. I can only guess it’s owed to the stress of being so overwhelmingly beyond my arena of comfort and familiarity. I’ve recently moved into my own apartment which is home to a floor mat on which I sleep and little else. I hear the sounds of a city alive with activity and commerce, yet none of this lends me solace. These people, with whom it is so difficult for me to interact, stacked as we are, like inmates in our tiny cells, one atop the next. I hear their chattering. I feel them on my skin. I’m numb to nothing.
Korea doesn’t allow you to sleep in. Cars and trucks mounted with bullhorns circle the neighborhood day and night, buffeting the air with unintelligible noise. For all I know, it’s anti-foreigner propaganda, but I think there’s an election taking place and pray this nonsense stops once it’s over.
The language barrier is steadfast. If I thought I was out-of-place before, living with my employers, my situation has been made all the more challenging without a chaperone or host to translate critical dialogue. There’s a security guard that sits near the entrance to my apartment building who meant to inform me of something this morning of which I will forever remain ignorant. My next door neighbor made a similar attempt, managing to translate only two words into English for my benefit: “computer” and “internet.” I spend more time pretending that I understand what Korean people are saying than I spend doing anything else. You know the courtesies that you extend to someone who’s talking to you while you’re not really listening? I use those full-time. Uh-huh, yeah. Really? Wow. Oh my. You don’t say. Thankfully, nodding my head does not a binding contract make, because I have doubtless agreed to some ridiculous shit.
When someone attempts to begin a conversation with you in a language that you don’t speak, you have a couple options, and I’ve employed them all. You can feign comprehension. You can attempt to tell the individual in their own tongue that you don’t speak the language. This usually becomes quite evident in due time. What’s most interesting to me is the frequency with which the person continues in his or her attempts to convey the message. Frustrated, they begin to repeat themselves, as if through sheer will or determination he or she might actually teach you all that you need to solve the riddle. Unfortunately, I don’t understand it any better the second or third time it’s said to me. You can shrug: the universal sign for “I don’t know.” I do a lot of shrugging. You can also avoid eye contact altogether and just walk away. I do this more and more, and have no doubt hence become the rudest American any of these people have ever had the displeasure of meeting. Once you realize that the person has no idea what you’re saying, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make fantastic and abhorrent proclamations. I can testify firsthand to the dangers of giving into this enticement.
There is a great deal of trust inherent in purchasing anything -especially consumables- from a man whose discourse you cannot decipher. I had a terrible headache the other day and after locating a drugstore, commenced with the “my-head-is-in-pain” performance. It seems my act was ultimately convincing. The pharmacist eyed me with apprehension at first, but at one point appeared to understand my dilemma and procured a box from beneath the counter. In the box were ten soft gel capsules resembling cold medication. There is zero English on this box. I have no idea what I’m putting into my body. It’s not inconceivable that he could be prescribing and administering antipsychotics to me after witnessing my headache dance. He tells me the price, but I don’t know my Korean numbers any better than I know the Korean alphabet, so I hand him a thousand won. His hand remains. I hand him another thousand won. He smiles and says something else I don’t understand, but his hand still beckons, so I hand him another thousand won. That seems to seal the deal. I could very well have just been robbed. I could very well have just been poisoned.
Having an apartment lends a new element of finality to this whole undertaking. Being able to call any space in South Korea “mine” has a way of making solid the decision to turn from my old lifestyle. I’m without my friends, my family, my beautiful comforts I was so quick to dash. It’s sometimes hard to remember this isn’t permanent. I catch glimpses, memories like Polaroids of people and places I haven’t seen in these last four weeks and won’t see again anytime soon. I feel a need to remind myself that all is well and as it should be. There are times I pause in my routines, like waking, and blink disbelievingly at where I am and the reality of what I’m doing. Is this some elaborate prank? My plane surely departed but did it circle the skies for hours only to land on some magnificent set designed for my own personal deceit. These people aren’t without their similarities to the people I’ve known, after all. They still walk upright and cry out when wounded.
Korean women treat me in one of two ways. The first is with a complete and absolute indifference. The second is with a combination of stares and giggles. I can’t be certain if I’m being admired or ridiculed. The men are eager to make friends with English speakers but I can never be sure if I’m being befriended or courted by a homosexual. The following is taken exactly as it appears from an email I received after meeting a guy who was kind enough to help me find my way around an internet cafe:
Hello. My name is lee gyeol
I am 23 years old and the blood type is B.
I am too shy and realistic
That can be my merits at the same time demerits.
The hobby is watching movie and playing table tennis.
The Achilles’ heel is short stature and the other is I can’t drink much.
I will stop my introduction now.
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