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.
There’s a monstrous spider that has constructed a giant web outside my bedroom window. He sleeps most of the day, clinging to the center of his web which is splayed across the space between the sill and a nearby tree branch. At night I check on him to watch as he glides about on his home/dinner-trap, busy with the inspection and consumption of his prey. It’s curious to me that everything else I’ve encountered in this country is either half the size or half the strength of what I’m accustomed to, from tiny little napkins, to tiny little drinking glasses, to tiny little trash cans. Not this guy. This spider is one intimidating, extra-large, no-nonsense behemoth. I find it hard to believe a spider could look that vicious and not be a killer.
Gwangju is in no way a small city, but it’s not the size of Seoul and you don’t see a lot of non-Asian people here. In fact, you don’t see much diversity at all, so the locals will sometimes make a fuss over you. It’s not uncommon for people to approach you on the street and strike up a conversation with you in English. We don’t do this in the States; we can’t. You can’t approach an Asian in many places in America and assume you know their language. They might have grown up down the street from you. You’re an asshole now. What kind of ignorant hillbilly thinks every Asian person he sees is from another country? It’s not so here. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you see a white person on the streets of Gwangju, they grew up somewhere else. Children are especially curious about foreigners. They’re more likely than their parents to know some English and they’re eager to flex. Some of them will even approach me and reach to touch my funny-looking skin. They marvel at the tone or maybe it’s the hair on my forearms, or maybe they’re eager to feel something novel and different. It’s why I’m here, after all. I’ve never been called handsome by so many young Asian boys at any other time in my life … I promise. Perhaps, “handsome” is one of the first words being taught in English classrooms all across South Korea. Regardless, I get the feeling they say this to you whether it’s true or not.
This past Wednesday was a national holiday in Korea, so everyone had off from school and work. I spent the entire day at another Buddhist monastery. I’m drawn to these places. Each one I’ve visited has been located in some private paradise, in some exotic wilderness. On the map of my life, there are entire highways that have traversed through nothing but concrete chaos and barren self-destruction. The older I get the more I hope to make a few detours through stillness and beauty, and I have never found those two things in a less diluted form than I have in the presence of these temples and their gorgeous locales. Returning, I thought immediately of my dog and his needs. He would need to be let out. He would need water. If he still lived with me, that is. But he doesn’t. It’s a hurt I hadn’t felt yet. After the first week the realization that I’m staying, that this isn’t a vacation, is beginning to set in. There’s a strange loneliness that I can only now feel beginning to take root in my mind. It’s mild but very real, like walking as a spirit in the material world, able to look but not touch. There are people everywhere smiling and laughing, enjoying their normalcy and it’s almost as if I cannot be seen but for a fleeting glimpse. I’m interesting for a second and then gone just as quickly. I can’t ever really belong. I’m destined to forever be a weird visitor in this place, imprisoned by my impenetrable, Caucasian bubble. A solitude of whiteness.
Tonight I went to a public bath for the first time. It’s just what it sounds like: lots of uncircumcised dick flopping around. This bath house was fairly new to the area, I was told, so it was clean and not terribly crowded. There were three different hot tubs built into the floor like public pools, and three different sauna rooms all at varying degrees of heat and moisture. Some so intense it would steal my breath as I entered and rob me of my faculties for a second. I peed in the one tub. I hardly doubt I’m the only one who did.
Koreans don’t appear to associate any shame with farting. I can’t be sure, but I think farting is nothing more than a kind of ass-sneeze in this part of the world … no, even a sneeze you might acknowledge with a polite bless you. Farts are loud and disruptive and no one seems to pay them any mind but me when I laugh like an adolescent idiot-child. I’m happy that farts are still funny in the States. It’s smelly butt sounds, how is that not amusing? But it isn’t, not to Koreans. So, if you see me laughing alone but surrounded by a group of Asians, you can be certain that one of them shit their pants.
I’m learning to read the language, not effectively in a time-efficient manner, mind you, but it’s progress. Only twice since I’ve arrived have I eaten alone. Until that point I had learned how to order one dish. Needless to say, that’s just what I ate for dinner on both occasions. Restaurants here have a comical way of placing whatever animal they’re best known for on some poster or advertisement to announce what’s being served. If the place is proud of their beef, they might wallpaper the inside of the joint with some picturesque scene of cattle, grazing in green fields during a happier time. I’ve also seen smiling cartoon mascot representations of the animal on which I’m about to feast bidding me welcome from atop the storefront sign over the entrance. It’s Sammy The Squid giving me a wink and a big thumbs-up to let me know the seafood soup is deeeee-licious! It’s an honesty that I can get behind. Americans oftentimes want the privilege of eating quality meat but would still choose to remain clouded in ignorance as to the sacrifice made by the meal itself. A korean restaurateur doesn’t permit you the luxury. I ate raw beef for the first time at dinner. Maybe back in the states I didn’t like tomatoes. Maybe I didn’t care for mayonnaise on my ham sandwich. That’s the sort of thing I gotta put behind me because now there’s cooked beetles on the table, right next to a fish tank filled with some kind of living tubeworms that look like reanimated pig intestines.
I sit in my room-which is not my room at all but the room of my employers’ son, who has been displaced to sleep in some room previously functioning as a closet-and listen to an argument taking place in a language that is still foreign to me. Knowing how to say, “I’m from America,” and “It’s nice weather we’re having,” doesn’t exactly give me mastery over the Korean language. Eavesdropping on people screaming at one another in a foreign tongue is a scary thing. It’s fast, it’s loud and it’s serious. I’m not even sure I know who’s arguing. Sometimes I think I hear a word I might recognize. Sometimes I think I hear my name. For what reason could they possibly be yelling about me? It’s like living with my parents … if my parents had shouted in code.
Living in Korea has dramatically improved my Spanish. I guess because it’s the only other language I’ve ever made an attempt to learn, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in need of a Korean word and my brain produced the Spanish one. I’m constantly speaking to Korean people in perfectly enunciated Spanish. “Hola,” I say by way of greeting, and, “Gracias,” I say in thanks. Dumbfounded, they leave me to inform their friends that they’ve just met face-to-face with the stupidest American to ever be issued a passport.
I found a website streaming episodes of television shows I’ve missed since leaving the states. I sat down this morning to watch an episode of The Office and immediately, just like a Pavlovian dog, began salivating for potato chips. Damnit, I didn’t travel halfway around the globe to eat pizza and watch TV, but I’ve been here less than a week and already I look to forsake my grand cultural experience.
There are two items you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere in South Korea: a tall glass of water and a bigass garbage can. Honestly, I have a hard time finding garbage cans at all. I never realized how nice it was having a nice, big can of garbage nearby. Nearly everything you do creates waste. Then, you throw it out. I spend a lot of time walking around with waste in my hands, unable to find an appropriate place to dispose of it. I now have a designated pocket in my backpack reserved for waste. In the city, you’ll find trash in little piles here and there where people gave up carrying it around, and you’ll find trash-people wearing special, trash-collecting vests and gloves, walking around picking up the trash, but no trash cans. When you do find one, it’ll be really tiny.
It takes some getting-used-to but I’ve come to enjoy the cuisine here. Nearly all Korean dishes give a kick that lines your stomach with a long, slow heat that I can only compare to the effect of a strong whiskey. Most everything I’ve eaten is delicious, but some meals I’ve eaten I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the chef had walked out into the back yard and just grabbed what he had to work with and threw it into a bowl before heating it up. Grab some of that grass … and a lot of those weeds there, oooh, what’s under that rock? Mushrooms, yes! Now put the rock in and hand me that chicken and we’ll kill it and chop it into large pieces and throw that in, too. What’s that? A root of some kind? Good, throw that in. Now stir it up with that fence post and we’re finished. I call it scavenger gourmet. It’s resourceful culinary. After dining on the choicest cuts of his kill, the American hunter goes in search of his next meal; the Korean hunter continues eating.
Saturday, we hiked Mt. Mudeung and before we climbed we visited a restaurant for lunch at the foot of the mountain. Mr. Park suggested a dish he described as a chicken soup of sorts. Don’t think Campbell’s. Also, don’t imagine you’re supposed to eat everything that’s in this soup. After our meal, we joined the throngs of people on their way up the formidable trails. At times, the countryside looked not unlike that of the hills of Pennsylvania, until the cackle of some strange, alien bird reminded me of the distance I’ve traveled to be here. The seasons are the same; the people aren’t. For one, you’d never find so many people out hiking at the same time on any mountain trail in Pennsylvania, and you certainly wouldn’t find them wearing these flowery masks and visors and bonnets, eyes and faces shielded from some risk that is lost on me. There are three Buddhist temples on the way up Mudeung and, after breaking off from the gaggle of Asian beekeepers and arc welders, we stopped at all three. I’ve never been one to celebrate organized religion but there is something moving about a great mass of people all gathered together in shared faith. It’s a powerful thing. Unless, it’s bent on the condemnation or outright destruction of another great mass of people all gathered together in different faith, in which case it becomes a very, very powerful thing. I felt an intense yearning to enter each temple in hopes of being close to something spiritually large. Each temple housed a different life-sized statue of Buddha and we were permitted to enter but not take pictures. I can’t say I didn’t feel something, but I also can’t say I haven’t felt the same thing upon entering a library. It’s a sense that if you look hard enough for something in this place, then you will surely find it.
“I’m moving to Korea to teach English,” that’s me.
“But … you’re not a teacher,” that’s my Dad.
“And you don’t speak Korean.”
“Well … I just, I uh … I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Initially I said that I didn’t know what I was looking for, or know if I was necessarily looking for anything at all. Now I know that I am … looking, that is, and for a long time I had stopped altogether. I don’t know if John Lennon was the first to say it but he most often gets the credit for saying that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Now I don’t imagine that happiness is something I will find one day like a golden Easter egg hidden from sight in the tall grasses of South Korea. This journey is simply one of curiosity. Although, I do seem to take a great deal of fulfillment from the act of searching alone. I have an insatiable appetite for life and it’s as if I’ve been eating the same meal for a very long time now. I think that sometimes this restless curiosity of mine gets mistaken for discontentment. I say, “I wanna see more. I wanna do more,” and a friend might say, “Why are you so discordant?” Okay, so my friend uses pretentious vocabulary but it’s a good question and I think it’s important that I answer it before I leave.
It’s not uncommon for people to associate yearning or desire with dissatisfaction but maybe it should be. Buddhists attempt to shun the idea of intense longing, attachment and excitement, calling it a mental illness. At times the idea of sitting cross-legged with my eyelids half-shut in a calm, peaceful oneness with the present moment is very, very attractive. I call those times: shitty. Seriously, think about it. The only times when you’re really interested in balance and serenity and Zen are when you’re stressed or worried about some potential fuck up. When you’re riding the spike of some glorious achievement or sailing the seas of ecstasy the farthest thing from your mind is, Whoa, hold on … this manic euphoria is not good for me. I had better meditate and balance shit out for a second. Excitement is intoxicating and disappointment is a bitch, but I wouldn’t trade the one so as to never have the other. I say give me those wild, swooping lows and with them the crazy, soaring highs or you might as well just give me my lobotomy now.
At any rate, the deed is done. The contract is signed. I’m leaving in about two weeks. In the meantime, I watch my current employers sift through resumes and audio from candidates applying for my job at the radio station. They ask my opinion on certain hopefuls. It feels like I’m watching an ex-girlfriend audition the next guy she’s gonna sleep with and she wants my advice.
“What do you think Troy, he looks good, right?”
“Ehh, … I dunno I mean, the guy’s wearing a big, stupid-ass belt buckle… is that what you want? I’m just asking. I mean, if you wanna open your legs to Conway Twitty and rut like barn hogs then be my guest but I would replace me with someone better if I were you.”
And it’s the first of many times to come where I wonder … Am I making the right decision? I can see all these people clearly want to take my job when I leave. Do they know something I don’t? What will they pay the new guy? Will he be better than me? Hell with it, I’m gone anyway.