The Human Affliction
I woke this morning damp and sticky with sweat, feeling like something put in the mouth that is immediately detested and discarded. We have no air conditioning and summer is beginning to peak. There is a man on my floor who I’ve never seen, but I hear him day and night, hawking loogies out the windows of the walkway to the elevator. I imagine a foul troll covered in sickly pale, near-translucent flesh and seeping sores, leaving a trail of wet filth wherever he steps. If his shameless lung-shitting didn’t wake me it must have been the children. Children screaming in excitement, children wailing and bawling in mock terror, children beating empty plastic bottles together, children kicking something aluminum down the goddamn hallway. Or, did I hear a siren? A mounting, climbing siren that crescendoed into abrupt silence? No, wait … announcements. This must be important. These announcements come not from the speaker in our apartment but from the many loudspeakers hidden about the neighborhood. I must remember to ask one of the two bilingual people I know as to the meaning of this. Is there a curfew now? Do I need to start boiling my water? Is North Korea attacking? It was important enough to address us all at once. I walk to the window to see if I can observe any modicum of panic in the movements of my tiny neighbors below. Is anyone reacting poorly to this message? No, no one appears to be coming undone by whatever news this is.
If I had a craft it would have been working in the art of speech, expressing oneself effectively in a compelling manner through articulation. I devoted nearly ten years of my life to this end, and it’s thoroughly useless to me here. I can’t win anyone over with purple prose or a silver tongue. Each conversation begins and ends the same way. At first so cute and intriguing, at last so frustrating and pointless. I grow tired of trying to make friends and would settle for making enemies. However, short of an outright act of aggression my intentions are certainly destined to be misunderstood.
Alas, I can still pick a fight with the garbage cop. Neither my roommate nor I have any real desire to confront him, so our waste tends to collect in a fetid, revolting plastic bag under the sink. Today I resign myself to walk it down. He’s waiting there, of course, in his garbage cop toll booth, in his garbage cop uniform; shirt untucked, sleeves rolled, hat crooked on his sweaty head. I move to dump my payload in its appropriate container. Without hesitation, he approaches and commences with his barking. “What could I possibly be doing wrong?” I ask him. He barks, louder this time. I dump the bag anyway. “There is rotten food and waste in here,” I point into the trash can. “Why would you raise your voice at me for putting my rotten food and waste in there as well?” He barks again. “Why, because I didn’t bring it down in the cute yellow bags? Well, I can’t find them in any store, so fuck your cute yellow bags, okay.” Oh, he recognizes that word. “You recognize that word, huh?” He cocks his head to one side like a German Shepherd. “You want me to scratch your ears big fella?” I ask. He closes the lid and yanks the bag from my hands before storming back to his doghouse.
Against my better judgement, I went to a foreigner bar last night to watch the U.S. team play Slovenia in the World Cup. I never cared much for soccer and initially couldn’t imagine spending a great deal of time in Korea chatting up other Americans, but the longer I stay, the more I develop occasional cravings for easy conversation favoring familiar topics. I go to the theater to see ridiculous American films just to bathe in the recognizable dialogue. It’s always a bittersweet experience, to lose myself in those acquainted, predictable themes and storylines but the second the lights come up it’s, “Oh yeah, I’m in Korea where I’ve never been so weird and unusual.” That’s right asshole, I’m not from around here. Get a good, long look because we’re sure as shit not gonna come anywhere close to striking up a stimulating conversation with each other. U.S.A? U.S.A? Where from? U.S.A? The movie was that animated one about the kid and his pet dragon. Afterwards, I’m on the bus home and all I can think about is my dog I left behind, and I start to weep like a beaten orphan. Then this woman taps my shoulder and motions that I should close my window, and I thought I might hit her.
I joined the cheapest gym in Gwangju. It’s a meager place with few amenities but not crowded when I visit. It cures all that ails. Payment in toil for peace of mind. The proprietor is a charismatic man who enjoyed some success as a professional bodybuilder in his youth. He speaks scant English and insists that I stretch and do crunches before every workout. After losing myself in the beating, he apologizes for not being able to speak better English. I said, “Buddy, I’m in your country. I’m the one whose sorry I don’t speak your language.” He of course didn’t understand me, but I immediately realized that this interaction couldn’t happen in America. There isn’t one American business owner who would ever think to apologize to a foreigner for not having a better grasp of their native tongue. I apologize I don’t speak better Chechen. Excited to find an activity that isn’t wholly subverted by my inability to comprehend Korean, I buy tickets from him to a professional Muay Thai fight. Violence and contests of strength always require very little to appreciate and understand.
Being American, it’s difficult to think of America as having a unique culture consisting of its own customs and traditions but it does, and until recently I think I hated them all. Experiencing Korean culture has granted me a certain forgiveness of what I perceive to be predictable in American behavior. We’re all suffering from the same human affliction, after all. We share the same symptoms. We’ve just developed different coping mechanisms.
Listening to “Country Comfort” off of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection while walking to lunch yesterday, passing all the old Korean ladies selling their weeds and roots, I enjoyed a daydream of home: pastoral and gorgeous. I was at once clearly and unquestionably walking on a stretch of my father’s land, arms outstretched, hands at play in the tall green grass, face raised to meet the sun, and I desperately wanted to live there forever … or at least until I desperately wanted to live somewhere else forever.
Anything That Comes Up In The Net
These people eat the shit of the ocean. They eat the shit that eats the shit of the ocean, and then sometimes they eat the shit, too. If it comes up in the net, they’ll eat it. I’ve decided there’s no way I’m getting out of here without eating some of it myself. I’ll try anything once, I suppose, with the exception of gay sex or suicide. Actually, suicide I can only try once, unless I suck at it, in which case I get another shot. I hear there’s a favored dish served locally where they kill the octopus just before they bring it out to the table, and you eat it raw, tentacles still squirming on your tongue.
In the States, I seldom enjoyed wearing underwear. I’ve always been more comfortable without. Of course, I told dirty jokes on the radio for a living. It wasn’t exactly part of the dress code. Teaching children, however, has forced me to reevaluate this decision. It seems risky for some reason, as if one, solitary layer of fabric is not enough separation between children and my genitals. There should be more. I wear underwear now. What if my jeans were to accidentally rip at the crotch? I do tend to wear them thin in that area with all of my incessant pawing.
Earlier a man stopped me to ask if his English business card contained any spelling errors. Yet another man, later in the day, looking directly at me, smiled unexpectedly as he passed saying nothing more than, “Good.” I can eat with them, I can drink with them. They might invite me to join them in some curious tradition, but as of yet, I’m finding it futile to achieve any kind of authentic connection beyond the English barricade.
Occasionally, when speaking to Koreans who claim to know some English, I’m told to slow down. I get ahead of myself and speak too quickly. They wave their hands in the air, screw up their face in anguish and say things like, “No, no, too fast.” I’ve forced too difficult a riddle in their direction. They’ve just received an English migraine. Now you know how I feel, I want to say. Welcome to my whole goddamn life, I want to say.
I’m not entirely without comfort in being unable to understand what is being said by all those around me. I recall having my fill of the predictable complaints and idle drivel that one could expect to endure from one’s familiars back home in the course of everyday exchange. Someone isn’t appreciated for all the hard work he does. Someone is being plotted against because she’s better-looking than everyone else. Someone has had it up to here. No one has been given enough of anything. In all likelihood, there are a multitude of Koreans who would challenge my patience just as efficiently, but here I enjoy the luxury of not having to soak in their bullshit. It washes over me, harmless and uninterpreted, just like everything else that comes from their mouths.
Tonight, two men out for an evening stroll in business suits said hello while holding hands, fingers interlaced. I remember taking notice of that one detail in particular, as if it wouldn’t have been strange to see two grown men walking hand-in-hand, fingers not intertwined. All men here tend to be more touchy with one another than men in the States. Gently and carefully rubbing the back of your good friend, lightly touching his face with the tips of your fingers as you share a meal. These things aren’t weird in Korea. They’re peculiar to witness if you’re me. The women do it, too. It’s nearly impossible to find a pair of women walking together not embracing in some fashion. This isn’t an unwelcome sight at all. It’s an adorable custom, really. Women unable to keep from caressing one another, giving into some inner need for touch, heat and comfort. Anything not to be isolated.
The elevator in my apartment building is in the twilight of its existence. When a machine is built it begins a course of usefulness that will one day expire. It possesses a finite number of times it will perform its duty. Machinery begins counting backwards to zero from this imaginary number at the moment it is used for the very first time. Maybe it fails all at once in a magnificent grinding of cogs and crashing of weight. Maybe it hints at its impending demise, ever so casually with a slowing of function, a weakening of structure. This elevator which carries me fourteen floors to my abode has announced to the world in a full, throaty roar just this afternoon that it will be ceasing it’s operation at some point in the very near future … as will I, no doubt, if I happen to be its passenger on that day.
We have bugs. I saw a rather detestable bastard crawl from under the rim of the toilet while I was pissing and was surprised when he didn’t go down with the flush. I don’t know why I was so surprised; he’d have to be resilient after all, living in a toilet. My first thought was: we live on the fourteenth floor, that’s a helluva distance for something so small to migrate. Then it occurred to me, this vermin has never seen the ground floor. He belongs to a whole generation of detestable bastards that have always and will forever live out their entire existence on the fourteenth floor, pilfering our leavings, behind our walls, under our appliances, inside our toilets.
Each apartment is equipped with a speaker for the purpose of broadcasting, what I presume are, messages of some interest to residents in the building. This happens once a week without warning. A man’s diffident voice suddenly discharges gibberish all over my sweet, peaceful reverie. I can’t help but wonder at the nature of this intrusion. Uh, hello everyone. Yeah, um, so all the parking spaces are full again. I, um, I was asked to tell you that if you have guests who, uh, are parking in the spaces provided for residents … uh, they need to be moved right away. Yeah, uh, seriously. It’s like every weekend I have to tell you about this and, uh, like, it needs to stop. Okay? Yeah, seriously. And, um, we’re never gonna fix that elevator or spray for bugs until, uh, this issue is addressed. Okay, um, that is all. Have a pleasant day.
A palpable level of fear and paranoia exists in my workplace. The teachers worry about the same things that other coworkers worried about in any other place that I’ve ever worked before: getting fired. Getting fired is never factored into anyone’s plans. Getting fired is having the choice made for you. No one wants to get fired, ever. Andrew doesn’t want to get fired, again. Andrew has been fired twice. He’s been rehired on the following day on both occasions. In all honesty, I don’t think Andrew is all that worried about getting fired anymore. It doesn’t exactly deliver the same punch when you get to keep your job afterwards.
Pockets Of Rotten Air
Tonight my roommate and I went to dinner. On the menu was a selection of various skewered meat. It’s like gambling, so you start with the cheaper meals first. We were served one chicken egg frying on a hot plate as an appetizer. I’m fond of a certain spicy noodle soup called Udon which is actually a Japanese dish, and tonight’s serving was especially fiery. Practical-joke-hot, in fact. Not since I was exposed to CS gas during basic training has my head been vacated of so much fluid. I kept listening for the unkind laughter of a cameraman hiding somewhere within the restaurant, or awaiting some popular Korean game show host, drunk on derision, to leap from the kitchen and offer me a t-shirt for unknowingly taking part in this tearful debacle.
I’ve overdosed on spice, or maybe I drank too much tap water. It’s potable here, but I don’t see many people drinking it. Maybe my body is only now reacting to being saturated these past few weeks in the ingredients of a new cuisine. Maybe it’s a gastrointestinal virus I picked up from one of my filthy students. Something’s not right. The mere thought of Korean food right now is nauseating. I want mashed potatoes and gravy. I want prime rib. I want Thanksgiving dinner. What I have is a kimchi hangover, or worse. It’s the yellow dust. I can see it on every surface I touch. I try not to bite my fingernails but I’m hopeless. The stench doesn’t help matters. This place smells like hot, sick death. It’s not unique to Gwangju; it’s unique to the great urban sprawl. Sewer grates expel pockets of rotten air like shit to wade through on my way to everywhere. I miss fresh air. I miss peanut butter. I miss my dog and blonds and riding my motorcycle and being the only naked man in the bath.
I miss privacy. You can’t get away from these people. It’s not a racist statement; it’s a misanthropic one. I try sometimes to escape them by breaking off in a direction I suspect they might not follow, only to find a hundred of them already had the same idea. I struggle to find a balance between this peculiar loneliness and the intense desire to be alone, a longing for company and a repulsion at the very idea of it. I want to be loved. No, no … by someone other than you. Feeling different and ugly, I set about to riding the public bus routes to better learn my way. I sit for an hour on the crowded number fifty bus surrounded by children wearing pressed school uniforms or brightly colored shirts sporting comical, bastardized English text that has been mistranslated to a state of immaculate senselessness. The bus is driven by a man who awkwardly and without compunction lifts his hands from the wheel to tap himself in the chest as if playing a single note on an unseen accordion. This is done with predictable regularity every ten to fifteen seconds. Each strike is different from the one before it. Sometimes his fingers appear to lash out at some invisible, flying pest before attacking the breast pocket of his shirt. I can’t peel my eyes away, so I remove my headphones, wondering if this is being done in time to a song on the radio. No, this is the manifestation of some undeniable compulsion, a tic that cannot possibly be ignored. This man should not be driving a bus in his condition. I don’t feel so bad anymore.
Everyday seems to possess a thin lining of possibility, a membrane of potential for neurotic upheaval.
Recycling is taken to fearful new depths here. There is a daily confrontation with our building’s garbage cop. Another foreigner told us that we need to buy special, designated yellow garbage bags in which to put our non-recyclable waste. Everything else -and I do mean everything- is to be sorted and placed into its own special receptacle. From bottles of plastic and glass, to aluminum foil, to paper receipts and paper advertisements, to plastic shopping bags and cereal boxes. This explains the absence of large trash cans throughout the city. We can’t be trusted to meticulously sort through our own trash when faced with the more convenient option of breaking loose from these shackles of rubbish and discarding them guilt-free into the waiting maw of sweet, irresponsible freedom. I’m determined to never purchase these ridiculous yellow bags, and instead flush any and all biodegradable waste down my toilet. I’ll be a garbage outlaw, destined to forever clash with this unpleasant, unhappy trash dog who insists on policing waste for a living and barking savagely at me when he knows damn well I can’t understand him.
There was an attractive Korean woman who approached me on my walk to work and asked me in near-perfect English, “Are you working?”
“I’m on my way there now.”
“You should read these,” she said as she handed me pamphlets detailing the benefits to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. Yeah, they have them here, too. “Take them. They’re yours now,” she insists.
“Oh, could you throw them away for me then, please?” I asked nicely.