Drivel ˈdri-vəl 1 : to let saliva dribble from the mouth 2 : to talk stupidly and carelessly

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Korean Fan Death

Korean Fan Death

Korean Fan Death

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.

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Ripeness Is All

"Mudfest"

Mudfest

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.

Kittens And Combat Boots

"Funeral Pyre"

Funeral For a Monk

Anymore, it’s the similarities that astonish me. Houseflies look exactly the same. I’ll often spot some species of centipede or cockroach, looking more than a little like its American counterpart, and wonder: How did you get here? I’m on the other side of the planet; I want to see abominations born of an entirely different ecosystem. I want to see alien lifeforms. I didn’t come all this way to be bitten by the same goddamn pests we have at home.

Today I saw a Korean boy walking down the sidewalk and looking into his cellphone at whatever reflective surface existed there, shaping his hair, fixing his collar as he trips and stumbles in front of me and his humiliation and shame were just what you’d expect. He handled it as gracelessly as I would have. They’re not so different from you or me.

Somehow or another the topic of marijuana is brought up in one of my classes.

“What means marrow wanda?” a student asks.

“You know, grass … dope … weed … ” Nothing registers. “It’s a drug,” I say grudgingly. He appears to understand and we begin a discussion on illicit narcotics and how rare they and their use are in all of South Korea. I understand the penalties are stiff but I’m learning that whatever has been done to curb drug use in this country has been very, very effective. These kids don’t even know what drugs are. It’s what every mother in the States wishes she could do with premarital sex. It doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing. And even if there was, you’re not supposed to do it … ever! There are no drugs on the street, and no guns. No violence to speak of, almost zero crime. But there is one thing that Koreans embrace as much as, if not more than, Americans: alcohol. You can drink as much as you want, wherever you want and as often as you want to drink it. Apparently, no business deal is complete unless it’s sealed by a clumsy, drunken handshake. If you can’t hold your liquor or go shot for shot with a prospective new client, then you my friend are a shitty-ass businessman. No one wants to do business with some guy who doesn’t know how to properly inebriate himself to the blunderous, pants-shitting point of clear and total nonrecognition. I walk home from work and see men stumbling in semi-formal attire, in a semi-state of undress with their hands tucked deep inside each other’s waistbands, and I think: Ahhh, another successful business deal sealed by the world’s most profitable and accepted intoxicant.

It’s easy to forget that most common figures of speech translate literally into gibberish. “I put my foot down and told him the way it was gonna be,” for example means fuck-all when translated for a Korean person. “I won’t stand for it anymore.”

I’m now convinced that Hawkster McLoogenspit down the hall is not one man but many. Hell, I could be hearing every man on the floor chucking phlegm out into the night at different intervals. I was foolish to have thought that one man could make such a racket repeatedly. He would need to be suffering from some chronic form of acute respiratory disease. A person like that would surely be hospitalized. After all, Korean men fart without compunction, why should they hesitate to retch some other miserable product from their bodies in full and shameless view of all in attendance. In all fairness, I hear this far more than I see it. It sounds like murder, though. Like impalement, like someone being run clean through with a sword of some kind.

Needing desperately to find something resembling solitude, I decide to spend the night at a Buddhist temple in a rural area south of Gwangju. Sequestered deep in the countryside of the lush, green mountains of Gangjin is a temple called Baekryun. I arrived late in the day soaked top to bottom from the climb but just in time for the evening’s tea intake. Now, I’m doing shots of tea from little baby teacups in some nightly ritual led by a Buddhist monk with perfect, manicured hands who’s talking on a brand new iPhone while preparing green tea, red tea, Orange Pekoe tea and gangrenous black tea. A small group of Korean women wait expectantly for another pot to brew while milking the last of their present fare. The monk–who I will later learn drives his SUV like a man insane–pours for the woman to his left and then passes the pot around. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of another familiar ceremony with which I’m more acquainted involving marijuana and a water pipe. I’m not sure what all the anticipation is about; this tea isn’t even sweetened. I have no idea what they’re saying to one another, but I’d like to believe they’re talking about how killer the tea is. The next offering, I’m told by the monk in busted English, is good for my health. Something I’ve noticed about Korea: everything is good for my health. That’s fish paste; it’s good for your health. You’ll sleep on the floor tonight; it’s good for your health. Oh, you’ve never had squid penis? It’s good for your health.

Before dawn, I’m woken by the banging of sticks against other hollow sticks, and mallets against gongs, and it’s time for morning prayer, chanting and meditation. I find a giant lump on the back of my head because it itches. I’ve either been clobbered over the skull in my sleep with some severe instrument or some freakish Korean insect has laid its eggs in my scalp to later hatch and steal my brains. That afternoon, I’m invited to attend the funeral of a famous monk who has recently died and this births within me a curious, morbid excitement. This man’s death has potentially set into motion a sequence of events that will ultimately breed further enlightenment and wisdom, I somehow imagine. They say there will be a funeral pyre. I wonder will it smell funny? Maybe I will be witness to something worth writing down. Maybe I will be moved. Maybe there will be things of which I can take pictures. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s much the same as watching Korean television; women cry beseechingly, men roar defiantly, children dance oblivious to all, and … I … feel … nothing. I’m curious for a second if this is normal, or am I some kind of  budding sociopath? Am I destined to become one of these glacial automatons who needs to witness kittens being trampled beneath combat boots just to get an erection? It’s not as if I knew him. Perhaps, if I understood what was being said. No, I decide, American television escapes me just as easily.

My roommate was rehired. So, that’s how that works.

Deadbeat Bootlickers And Freeloading Slugs

At night, I’m wrapped in a film of the day’s hot breath and need to shower to prepare myself for the evening’s feast where I am the meal for countless mosquitoes which nightly breach our screens. They keep me awake scratching at their bites. I take great pleasure in killing them, hooting wildly with vengeful, retaliating satisfaction each time another is instantly snuffed between my slow, stupid, clapping hands. I place their tiny, insignificant corpses –still sticky with the blood they’ve milked from my flesh, and I then ruptured from their parasitic little bodies– in a special place on the wall near my bed as a warning to all their friends and colleagues that this is a place where their kind comes to die. My homage to deadbeat bootlickers. My shrine to freeloading slugs.

I’m not built for this. I’m a selfish man, unprepared to share this much time and space, living on top of one another, as if we have to, like there’s no other choice. The braying is ceaseless. Somebody is always making noise. Always.

My roommate was fired last night. He was told it was a financial decision. I’m curious to see if this is the kind of fired where he gets his job back today. This school isn’t like anything you remember from childhood. It’s a private school that occupies a corner of the third floor of a neglected, half-finished office building run by some sleazy power miser who won’t foot the bill to have any more than two lights working in the hallways or elevators at one time. The school itself is actually nice once you find it, like a bookish, self-respecting librarian taking up residence in the attic of a lecherous, disease-ridden Hungarian brothel. Whole chunks of concrete amidst broken glass and loose lumber are strewn about an open room without walls on the right as you round the last flight of stairs. Cold, forgotten, weeks-old cups of coffee line the hallway. Nefarious-looking men take smoke breaks in the hall outside the glass front of our school entrance, and the only restroom on this floor is a hideous cesspit home to all manner of defilement. Aluminum fruit cans overflow with cigarette ash and butts. The urinals are caked with yellow and brown layers of hardened residue, and I derive a secret gratification from pissing loose the flakes of urinary sediment. Even if tissue was made available you still wouldn’t enter the stalls, let alone sit your ass on the seats. That says something, doesn’t it? When I won’t even touch it with my ass. The entire grisly scene is canopied by colossal spider webs pimpled with the black, lifeless bodies of hapless prey.

Harry is the English name chosen by one of my nine-year-old students. I wish I could take credit for his namesake but he was titled thusly when I met him. He’s reading out loud to burn off the last few minutes of class when I take a brief respite from scratching my bites to rest my heavy eyelids only to wake suddenly with a jolt when I realize I’ve just slept through an entire page of Harry’s reading. Reflexively, I look to the camera in the corner of the ceiling. Each classroom is equipped with a state of the art surveillance camera that would be more at home in a casino than a classroom. Fortunately, big brother is out of the office today. I can only guess at why this level of scrutiny is deemed necessary. No person of any authority has ever sat in on one of my classes. I could be doing a real bullshit job on these knuckleheads, but as long as nothing looks fishy on the spy tube, I guess I’m in the clear.

I don’t touch the kids. I mean, I wouldn’t touch them … ya know, even if there wasn’t a camera on me at all times, I still wouldn’t touch them. They touch me, though. They like to feel my shaved head, and sometimes when I sit next to them I’ll catch one of them sniffing at my hands or arms. They mimic me, too. They copy my movements sometimes if I scratch myself or bite at my fingernails. They repeat everything I say. It’s difficult to get used to, and the first few times I picked up on it I growled at them until I realized that’s pretty much why I’m here: for them to mimic. Ape the white man, boys and girls. Learn his ways.

I shouldn’t be teaching children. It’s downright jaw-dropping to me that I’m entrusted with the education of anyone’s child. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve never hit them. But I’m tempted once or twice day. I snap at them frequently when one of them thinks maybe he or she is going to start getting comfortable or acting foolish. I curse them for imbeciles and retards when they make the same mistakes I’ve only just moments ago corrected. In my head rolls a never-ending loop of corruptive degradation that I desperately want to expose to each one of the spastic little bastards I’ve been charged to nurture and enlighten. I’m learning a new level of patience. Each time one of them tries to pronounce an r sound and begins by placing his tongue on the roof of his mouth to make that foreign r/l hybrid sound that’s such a part of Korean elocution, I want to poke them with something sharp. They can’t help it, and neither can I. I take it personally, like I stand vulnerable to some great loss. I see it behind his teeth! The world around me slows with anticipation as his tongue begins its assent, and I feel helpless. It’s as if I’m watching him deliberately stalk an open fire with a plastic cup of gasoline. “No!” I scream. “Don’t you dare do it! Please don’t.”

Harry picks his nose a great deal and then drops his findings under the desk between our feet where they can be forever ignored. I do that too sometimes, I think to myself. Today, while reading aloud, perfectly distracted by the task at hand and impervious to my inspection, he puts his entire hand down the inside front of his pants and proceeds to feel himself up. Just like me. I had to smile, until he removed his hand and without missing a line or mispronouncing a single syllable cups it fully over his nose and mouth to inhale whatever purchase was just made inside his skivvies. Okay, I would certainly wait until I was alone to maybe do that.

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.