Never in my life have I been so excited to buy a bed sheet. At least I think it’s a bed sheet. It feels more like a curtain. Why would anyone want to put this on their body? Is it made from burlap? I did! I bought a fucking curtain to cover me while I sleep.
I took a week’s vacation last week. A vacation from my vacation. None of it feels real. I think it’s the lack of any tangible consequence to anything I’m doing. I mean, the worst that could possibly happen is I’m fired and sent home, forced to evaluate my next move. But then, I have to do that anyway even if I complete my contract to its end. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t spending significant portions of my day focused on the next part of the plan. If this is my career then what’s the next step to advancement? How do I make more money, earn more respect, invalidate the other guy and nail his girlfriend? This isn’t a career. This is more like “Korea: The Game.” This is a holiday from ambition. Even the money looks fake.
By far, the cheapest place to stay in the city of Busan, South Korea is the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse near Gwangalli Beach. It’s run by a former traveler-turned-hostel owner named Mr. Lee who prefers to simply be called Lee. It’s a four bedroom apartment on the top floor of a tumble-down brick building, a ten-minute walk from the beach. Three of the rooms are loaded end-to-end with bunk beds covered in mosquito nets; the other is Lee’s. Fifteen dollars will get you a bed for the night, and we decided to stay for seven.
Lee’s lifestyle is one I can’t get my head around. It’s just him. He has no secretary, no wife, no assistant. The man can’t leave. He’s both at work and at home simultaneously. Drifters and vagabonds nightly arrive to loaf in his home, to sweat into his furniture, to shit into his plumbing. There are terse, handwritten notes scattered about his home, taped to each appliance instructing guests to put things back where they found them, to firmly turn the hot water knob in the bathroom so as to prevent the faucet from leaking, to wash any dishes that they use, to wipe their feet before they enter, to not feed the dog, to not screw on the roof. For all the charm of the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse it’s hot as living hell during summer’s peak. Lee insists that the air conditioner is to be run only between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am. For the remainder of your stay, relief comes only in the form of electric fans running on timers to keep you cool inside the nylon womb of your mosquito net. Inevitably, you nod out, the timer goes off and with it the fan, and you wake up stuck to the mattress in a viscous soup of sweat, sand and drool. It’s here that I learn about Korean Fan Death.
All fans sold in South Korea come with a timer feature to prevent the fan from running uninterrupted throughout the entire night. I mistakenly assumed this was an energy conservation feature. It is not. In Korea–and only in Korea–there’s a popular belief that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those inside. I’m not kidding. There are many ‘scientific’ explanations given to an individual with enough curiosity to ask about this ‘phenomenon,’ each one more preposterous than the previous: that if the fan is put directly in front of the face of the sleeping person, it will suck all the air away, preventing one from breathing; that the fan uses up the oxygen in the room and creates fatal levels of carbon dioxide; that an electric fan creates a vortex, which sucks the oxygen from the enclosed and sealed room and creates a partial vacuum inside; and–my personal favorite–that an electric fan chops up all the oxygen particles in the air leaving none to breathe. Now, I’m not saying that all Koreans buy into this shit, but there are enough to obviously impact and alter the way in which all electric fans are mass-produced in this country.
Otherwise, the week I spent hopping around the various beaches and bars of Busan, South Korea was hands-down the most surreal, liberating, disengaged and hypnotic week of my brief thirty-two years. The kind of existential unreal that I know, even while I’m in it, I’ll have a hard time believing afterwards that it even happened. Moving at such a leisurely pace that I half expect time to slow itself to a more permissive grind and accommodate me. Meeting total strangers from Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Russia. Forming solid, meaningful bonds over some dangerous, exotic meal, before some glorious, effulgent backdrop only to bid farewell two or three days later to become total strangers, forevermore. Watching Koreans–and not just fat kids, either–swimming in the ocean in their clothing, in full rain gear, hoods up and pulled tight, sunglasses on, masks secure. This occurring more than you would believe. Some say there exists a fear of the sun’s harmful rays. Or a fear that one will take on the reddish-brown hue of the common laborers who work the fields. Either way, I cannot possibly exaggerate the fact. It’s a gorgeous day. Where’s your wool sweater? Don’t you wanna get into the ocean? Well, then put some jeans on! What are you waiting for? Grab your turtleneck, moron, and enjoy the beach. At night, eating whole schools of raw fish, cursing loudly in English among the multitudes on the beach, broke, nothing in my pockets but sand, firing a roman candle at Gwangan bridge and suddenly, as if I was drugged and startled awake from the hallucination of it all, it’s over.
At home, staring out the window of my shitty high-rise, mere hours before returning to work and I’m watching the lightning pulse like an electric artery just beneath the flesh of the sky, never cutting through; watching the evening wink out light by light in the buildings across the empty street; sounding out in my head the giant, now-familiar Korean letters etched in fluttering neon on the public bathhouse next door; anticipating the sun rising on this still new, exciting hemisphere.
In the morning Bill is fired again. This time he loses his job.
I’m standing in a long line to get blasted in the face with mud. When I get to the front of the line I stand perfectly still and close my eyes to allow two small Korean boys to slam bucket loads of mud directly at my head as hard as they can. Afterwards, I get into a longer line where people are waiting to gain admittance into a giant inflatable swimming pool filled with mud where drunken degenerates are tackling one another and generally attempting to inflict as much pain as is legally appropriate. People who have no interest or patience to wait in line for this kind of abuse are gathered around smaller pools of mud where they are given brushes with which they liberally apply the stuff themselves. Someone is being held down by a mean and formidable mob of inebriated mud-thugs who are mashing handfuls of it into his or her hair.
It’s all a part of the most ridiculous, absurd and utterly magnificent thing to which I’ve ever been a party. Mudfest is a festival that happens once a year in an otherwise quieter seaside town on the western coast of South Korea called Boryeong. I’ve heard mutterings of “beneficial properties” and “therapeutic effects” but I think mainly it’s an excuse for foreigners to get stupid. In any other situation you would avoid these circumstances at all costs. If you were provided the same opportunity, propositioned in the same manner, anywhere else in the world, on any other day you would have the person arrested. You would do well to steer clear of the wild-looking intoxicated Asian wielding a bucket of mud and meaning to sling it at your eyes. But here, you wait in line. They whip so much mud at you that you’re breathing it. It’s in your lungs, up your nostrils, down your throat, and under your balls. An hour in the ocean and you’re still finding a swath behind your ears. They have to tell you to move on or you’d stay there and ask for more. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I can’t explain it, but it’s true. No, sir, you must move along. Find another attraction or get back to the end of the line. Do you think all this mud is for you, sir? There are lots of people here today and they are all hoping to get blasted in the face with this mud. Do you think this mud grows on trees? Okay, step right up. I’ve got fresh, wet filth and I’m willing to smash it right into your face with as much force as I can muster, if you’ll only step right this way. No, sir. Not you again. You’ve already been blasted in the face once with this disgusting garbage. I asked you nicely, now please, get to the back of the line, and then I will again gladly smack you as hard as I can in the lips with this heaping bucket of muck.
My roommate, Bill, and I find a minbak in which to sleep which is really just a room in the home of some Korean family with more space than they need. They provide us with blankets and pillows and a broken television. In the morning I realize we have an extra person in the room with us. I don’t recognize her but she seems cozy enough with Bill. She’s Korean and looks as if she might be thirty-years-old, or she might be fifty. She shows no sign of leaving, so I do. I walk down the boardwalk and overdose on shellfish and sunshine. Later, when I meet Bill he’s still accompanied by his mystery-aged consort.
“She was much better-looking last night,” he assures me. “I remember thinking how impressed you’d be by the native I pulled.”
I take this as cue that she doesn’t understand much English and say, “I’m impressed that anyone would look at that mouth and carelessly put their tongue in it. Her teeth are wrecked.” She now realizes that she is the subject of our conversation and flashes me a crooked, brown smile. She waves. I smile and wave back.
We spend the rest of the day enjoying our dying weekend, burning on the beach, devising convoluted schemes to lose Bill’s newly acquired barnacle, trying desperately to guess her exact age.
“She’s got wrinkles, dude. That puts her older than thirty-five. And Korean women age better than American broads, so what’s that tell you?”
“Yeah, but she’s wearing braces. Women that old don’t wear braces.”
“I don’t think those are braces. I think she’s just in desperate need of a good brushing.”
Fortunately, Bill never succeeded in escaping her clutches. She was remarkably useful after realizing that we had missed our bus back home, and there were no more buses running. There’s nothing quite like standing in line for a ticket home only to be told, “No, there are no more tickets home. You can’t get there from here. No home for you.” In a reversal of roles, we begin following our newest, dearest friend all over Boryeong until six hours later she lands us on a train headed back home to Gwangju.
At the train station, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read in English: “Pain Is Temporary, Pride Is Forever,” and I thought: No, that’s temporary, too. That’s a fairly narrow viewpoint of forever, isn’t it? Pride lasts forever? How do you figure? Where does your pride go when you die? Do your children inherit your pride as well as your debt? Surely, sooner or later, someone in your lineage will neglect to bequeath your pride on down the line. You can’t expect it to be as important to them as it was to you, no matter how much pain it cost. I like to listen to men talk about their “legacy,” and what they “leave behind.” Let’s face it, at some point it becomes more convenient to forget you. Maybe someone will write a book about you; that will surely make it easier for us to remember how great you were. But, like pain, those are temporary, too. Pain is temporary? Life is temporary. Ripeness is all. Enjoy.