I’m walking home from work tonight, wishing I had brought something warmer to wear. It’s the coldest day I’ve experienced since arriving here more than six months ago. I’m toying with the idea of stopping at a Korean barbecue joint for dinner. I should make a greater effort to meet people, make new friends. I think these things, but also know that I will simply continue walking the most direct route to my apartment and eat a tuna salad sandwich on toast when I get there. Waiting at the elevator in my building, a man approaches me from behind while talking loudly on his cell phone. He’s drunk, and I know this even before he places his hand on my shoulder in order to keep from falling on his face. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but this doesn’t prevent him from striking up a conversation with me once his call is finished; it almost never does. He’s a friendly, jostling bag of animated smiles and handshakes, and I’ve become somewhat used to this treatment, so when he grabs my hand in his and holds it lovingly on the ride up, I successfully resist the urge to elbow him in the back of the head. I’ve mentioned before that it is perfectly normal and appropriate for two drunken, heterosexual Korean men to behave in this manner. It is expected, in fact. So not wanting to offend my new friend, I grudgingly let it happen. Besides, when he presses the button for the ninth floor, I realize that he’ll be getting off five floors before me anyway. Or so I believe.
When the elevator stops on his floor, he tucks my hand firmly under his arm and begins to pull me off with him. I make an attempt at polite protest but this is quickly pushed aside as if I’m not truly in my right mind, as if I have no idea what it is I truly want from the night … which may not necessarily be untrue. I recall a moment here where I realize that I either allow myself to be the new Anglo-Saxon plaything to this retriever’s tenacious grip on me, or become far more forceful in my refusal to be further detained from my tuna salad sandwich. I can defend myself adequately enough, I reason, but we haven’t quite reached that point just yet. So again, I let it happen. And to be honest, this was the only way that I was making any friends tonight.
He tugs me into what I assumed was his apartment, but soon learn is actually his mother’s place. Apparently, it was she who I was intended to meet all along. There is some excited dialogue between the two of them which I can only guess at. Mom, holy shit! You’ll never guess what I saw downstairs while I was waiting for the elevator. A real, live white guy! Yeah. No, I’m not shitting you. He’s right here. I brought him here so you could see for yourself. Can you fucking believe this? No, I have no idea what he’s saying. I’m sure it’s English, though. Look at this guy, damn, this is our lucky day. Here, you talk to him or something while I get some mayonnaise and playing cards.
She is sitting cross-legged on the floor–of what I guess must be her bedroom–hunched and brooding over two stainless steel bowls. She is cutting a yellowish root of some kind into smaller pieces and placing some of the pieces into one bowl, some into the other. I try to discern the priority of their placement. Is it completely arbitrary, or does she have a system? I quickly abandon the riddle when I notice multiple flecks of the stuff stuck to her face. She’s got it in her hair and clinging to the wrinkled skin of her jowls. This is not the work of an organized mind. Her son brings a low table in from another room and motions for me to sit. He then begins to offer me juice, beer, milk, and yogurt. Would I like some of the yellow root that his mother is wearing? Do I need a blanket? Some beef jerky, a cigarette, honey mustard, lettuce? Would I care for some chewing gum or tap water? A baseball cap or mittens, perhaps?
Koreans under the influence of alcohol, I have noticed, will attempt to unload any–and sometimes all–of their possessions onto you. I can attest to this being the case with foreigners. I can’t say for sure if they do this with one another: an absurd and endless game of trading goods back and forth between households.
Throughout all this, they are both barraging me with unintelligible Korean. It’s always curious to me in these situations that people continue speaking in their own respective languages long after speech has proved resoundingly pointless and futile. You’d think we would just stop making noises, but we don’t. Not even to the deaf.
The son eventually begins making phone calls to every English-speaking person he knows. He then hands the phone over to me in the hope that some line of communication might be drawn between us. At some point I’m speaking to whom I understand to be his brother.
“Is he drunk?” he asks me.
“Oh yeah, he’s drunk alright.”
“I’m sorry about that,” he says chuckling.
“No worries,” I assure him, “he’s being very hospitable and generous.”
“What is your religion?”
“Do you go to church? You should go to our church. It’s very close. You should leave your number and we’ll call.” It soon becomes clear that I have far more in common with the shitfaced brother who speaks another language.
“Hey, listen, can you tell your brother that I really appreciate the bean sprouts and pancake syrup, but I’m just comin’ home from work and I really need to take a shower so …” I awkwardly hand the phone back to my enthusiastic host.
He shortly ends the call and gestures that I am free to continue on my way, but not before he presents to me a few parting gifts: a turnip or gourd of some sort, I can’t be sure, and a tube of toothpaste.
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.
Numb To Nothing
Occasionally, I find myself prey to an inexplicable feeling of dread, a near-certainty that something terrible is about to happen, but it never does. I can only guess it’s owed to the stress of being so overwhelmingly beyond my arena of comfort and familiarity. I’ve recently moved into my own apartment which is home to a floor mat on which I sleep and little else. I hear the sounds of a city alive with activity and commerce, yet none of this lends me solace. These people, with whom it is so difficult for me to interact, stacked as we are, like inmates in our tiny cells, one atop the next. I hear their chattering. I feel them on my skin. I’m numb to nothing.
Korea doesn’t allow you to sleep in. Cars and trucks mounted with bullhorns circle the neighborhood day and night, buffeting the air with unintelligible noise. For all I know, it’s anti-foreigner propaganda, but I think there’s an election taking place and pray this nonsense stops once it’s over.
The language barrier is steadfast. If I thought I was out-of-place before, living with my employers, my situation has been made all the more challenging without a chaperone or host to translate critical dialogue. There’s a security guard that sits near the entrance to my apartment building who meant to inform me of something this morning of which I will forever remain ignorant. My next door neighbor made a similar attempt, managing to translate only two words into English for my benefit: “computer” and “internet.” I spend more time pretending that I understand what Korean people are saying than I spend doing anything else. You know the courtesies that you extend to someone who’s talking to you while you’re not really listening? I use those full-time. Uh-huh, yeah. Really? Wow. Oh my. You don’t say. Thankfully, nodding my head does not a binding contract make, because I have doubtless agreed to some ridiculous shit.
When someone attempts to begin a conversation with you in a language that you don’t speak, you have a couple options, and I’ve employed them all. You can feign comprehension. You can attempt to tell the individual in their own tongue that you don’t speak the language. This usually becomes quite evident in due time. What’s most interesting to me is the frequency with which the person continues in his or her attempts to convey the message. Frustrated, they begin to repeat themselves, as if through sheer will or determination he or she might actually teach you all that you need to solve the riddle. Unfortunately, I don’t understand it any better the second or third time it’s said to me. You can shrug: the universal sign for “I don’t know.” I do a lot of shrugging. You can also avoid eye contact altogether and just walk away. I do this more and more, and have no doubt hence become the rudest American any of these people have ever had the displeasure of meeting. Once you realize that the person has no idea what you’re saying, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make fantastic and abhorrent proclamations. I can testify firsthand to the dangers of giving into this enticement.
There is a great deal of trust inherent in purchasing anything -especially consumables- from a man whose discourse you cannot decipher. I had a terrible headache the other day and after locating a drugstore, commenced with the “my-head-is-in-pain” performance. It seems my act was ultimately convincing. The pharmacist eyed me with apprehension at first, but at one point appeared to understand my dilemma and procured a box from beneath the counter. In the box were ten soft gel capsules resembling cold medication. There is zero English on this box. I have no idea what I’m putting into my body. It’s not inconceivable that he could be prescribing and administering antipsychotics to me after witnessing my headache dance. He tells me the price, but I don’t know my Korean numbers any better than I know the Korean alphabet, so I hand him a thousand won. His hand remains. I hand him another thousand won. He smiles and says something else I don’t understand, but his hand still beckons, so I hand him another thousand won. That seems to seal the deal. I could very well have just been robbed. I could very well have just been poisoned.
Having an apartment lends a new element of finality to this whole undertaking. Being able to call any space in South Korea “mine” has a way of making solid the decision to turn from my old lifestyle. I’m without my friends, my family, my beautiful comforts I was so quick to dash. It’s sometimes hard to remember this isn’t permanent. I catch glimpses, memories like Polaroids of people and places I haven’t seen in these last four weeks and won’t see again anytime soon. I feel a need to remind myself that all is well and as it should be. There are times I pause in my routines, like waking, and blink disbelievingly at where I am and the reality of what I’m doing. Is this some elaborate prank? My plane surely departed but did it circle the skies for hours only to land on some magnificent set designed for my own personal deceit. These people aren’t without their similarities to the people I’ve known, after all. They still walk upright and cry out when wounded.
Korean women treat me in one of two ways. The first is with a complete and absolute indifference. The second is with a combination of stares and giggles. I can’t be certain if I’m being admired or ridiculed. The men are eager to make friends with English speakers but I can never be sure if I’m being befriended or courted by a homosexual. The following is taken exactly as it appears from an email I received after meeting a guy who was kind enough to help me find my way around an internet cafe:
Hello. My name is lee gyeol
I am 23 years old and the blood type is B.
I am too shy and realistic
That can be my merits at the same time demerits.
The hobby is watching movie and playing table tennis.
The Achilles’ heel is short stature and the other is I can’t drink much.
I will stop my introduction now.
Please reply ~
Silence Of The Dogs
This is an odd place to wake up from a nap. There are a lot of Koreans here. I woke with death on the brain and a faultless understanding of why it was such an unmitigated necessity that we dream up the gods. Is there a scarier prospect than a forever of nothing? No feeling, no observation, no experience, absolute nothingness. Pain sounds more appealing … in theory.
I took a walk to burn off some anxiety. Heading into the city, I passed all the skinny Korean boys in their skin-tight clothes, with their exaggerated hair down in their eyes. I double backed towards the apartment to do some push-ups and chin-ups on a bar installed near the trail where I went hiking the first day I was here. The whole area was covered with a fine, golden film of pollen, or maybe this was the dreaded Yellow Dust that has everyone so excited. Exercise, I have discovered, is the linchpin. Without it, my mind scrambles dangerously forward into the future, or backwards into the past, unfocused and unstable. Where am I going? What have I done? What does it all mean? And, seriously, what the fuck is Yellow Dust? Should I be wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, too? Nonsense, just work.
I almost ate dog. At least, I think I almost did. We stopped at some roadside truck stop offering a buffet of sad-looking food the other day. One of the items on display was a pink, ham-looking meat. I was told to try some.
“What is it?”
“Dog,” she snickered. I thought maybe she was putting me on, so I asked someone else.
“Smoked dog,” he said. “Here,” he offered to fork some onto my plate.
“No, thank you. I have one at home,” was all I could think to say. Later, when we were sitting at the table, the man said that wasn’t dog up there just now. It was turkey, he said. Turkey my ass. There’s no turkey in South Korea. I haven’t seen turkey once in all the time I’ve been here, and I’ve never seen pink turkey anywhere in my life. Without passing judgement (on the eating of dog, not the being lied to), I helped myself to more rice. The dog-to-person ratio isn’t what it is in the states, but some people still keep dogs as pets. I’ve seen them; hell, I hear them barking every night outside my window. However, come to think of it, there always seems to be one less bark in the mix with each passing night. Where once I might have heard ten dogs barking in unison, I now hear maybe three. Is there a dog farm in the neighborhood? Those poor, little bastards. They’re being harvested, one by one. No wonder they bark like that.
I chipped my tooth failing to use chopsticks properly. Yep, just when I thought I was getting better. It got me thinking about dentists and doctors. I can hardly order a meal; how would I go about ordering surgery? An invasive operation is scary enough when you have unwavering confidence that your surgeon knows exactly what ails you. Here, I could never be certain that I was properly understood. Everyone is bowing and smiling, and I’m feeling assured, I’m feeling placated, and then I’m waking up in a recovery room with my balls on ice. I said I needed an appendectomy, not a vasectomy.
Living in a culture of such dissimilarity to home is a lot like being the new member in some clandestine, secret society with its own secret language, and secret rituals, and secret handshakes. Once you learn all these things, life begins to carry on in its familiar rhythms again, but until then you’re just an initiate in Phi Kappa Korea.
Climbing some stunning path through yet another cut of breath-taking Korean wilderness, Mr Park turns to me to ask if I’d like to stop at a natural spring to refill our water bottles. He says to me that the best things in life are free. I’ve heard that before, but it’s as if I’ve never fully understood what it meant until just that moment. He points at the water, the sun, then like an enlightened shaman waves his hand at the group of us to indicate fellowship. He’s right, of course. I would argue that you don’t really need to pay for food either; you pay for the convenience of someone else preparing it. Sex should be free as well, for that matter. What do I concern myself with most? The things I need? No, I have everything I need. What does that leave? The things that money buys. Shit … frivolous, trivial shit. It wasn’t necessary for me to come to South Korea in order to remember this, it just so happens I did.
I can’t find a single stick of deodorant for sale anywhere in this whole city. Apparently, Korean men don’t wear it. Seriously. Some women do, but I guess it’s only as a substitute for perfume, and then only rarely. I haven’t quite discovered the reason for this yet. I just know there’s no demand for it, so there’s no supply. Perhaps, it’s available in larger cities with greater concentrations of western transplants. To be fair, I have yet to smell a Korean person at all, malodorous or otherwise. I mean, I don’t even notice the scents I’m used to smelling on women: perfume, hair products, body lotion. It’s one massive, odorless mob. Check with me again in August.
The dogs have all stopped barking.
A Solitude Of Whiteness
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.
Beekeepers And Arc Welders
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.
Some Great Indecipherable Blur
There was an elderly man in the airport who fell down an escalator. I didn’t see this, but I heard it. It sounded like canceled plans. He was unconscious for a while, unmoving. Dead with a broken neck, I thought briefly. Then I saw his chest rising and falling. A crowd gathered. Nervously, I started to laugh. I couldn’t help myself. I do that sometimes when I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I wanted to take a picture, but thought better of it for the sake of his troubled family. That’s just what you want to see when you fear the worst for your poor, clumsy grandfather: a maniacal tourist giggling and taking snapshots of your suffering, your terrible day at the airport. It was the first excitement of my journey. Perhaps, the first bad omen. Although, I don’t worry much about escalators. I seem to navigate them well enough without incident.
The goal was to leave behind little or no attachments. Why then, this knot in my gut? I feel loose in the mind, uncertain. Goes to show how comfortable I had become. Exhausted, I nod off on the first flight and wake to a second’s panic, a dawning realization that everything I’ve just abandoned is truly absent. My feet are moving; I’m boarding connecting flights. I’m functional, but the motherboard is thoroughly fried. There, that guy looks happy and well-adjusted. He looks like a man without a doubt in his mind, someone who knows what he’s doing. Maybe I can just follow him, mimic his movements. He might have some Advil.
I’m flying over Alaska now, watching airplane television, wearing airplane slippers, trying desperately to sleep some of the twelve-hour flight away. I’m landing. Customs is a breeze, and I’m signaled almost immediately by a man holding a cardboard sign bearing my name. I nod. He nods. He ditches the sign, and grabs my bags, and I’m following him out into the street where he tosses me onto a bus without so much as a word. Four hours later and almost two full days since beginning the trip, I arrive at my destination: home of the Park family, my new employers. I pop an Ambien with a melatonin chaser and sink into the lustful folds of sweet, uninterrupted sleep. I wake a few hours later because my body is still operating on Eastern Standard Time. I stay prone in spite of myself and muscle out another few hours. I wake to the sounds of Mr. Park cooking breakfast. He tells me I should hike the trail behind their apartment. There’s a path through the mountain overlooking the city. I pass more than one person wearing a surgical mask. Yellow Dust, I later learn, is something that blows in all the way off the deserts of Mongolia and northern China, and for some medical reason, either real or imagined, scares the hell out of the natives. I return just in time for breakfast: legs of chicken (I presume but don’t ask) in a spicy red sauce and black rice. I fumble with the chopsticks. There are no drinks on the table and this is no mild dish. I excuse myself to blow my nose in the restroom … twice. Then I see it, perched at the end of the table beside three empty glasses. Milk! Why has it not been served? My face is leaking; I’m a mess. Pour the goddamned milk. Not until the last of the food is gracelessly devoured using my underdeveloped, chopstick-incompetent hands, is the milk served. Was this some kind of isolated oversight or can I expect this delayed gratification bit at every meal?
The shoe thing was cute at first. People here remove their shoes before entering homes and many places of business. Wearing your shoes into someone’s home is the social equivalent of shitting in their yard. It’s a pretty custom but where I work we use a public restroom located down the hall from our offices. This means putting on your shoes and then removing them again every time you need to use the bathroom. Not so quaint when you drink as much coffee as I do, or as much prune juice as Mr. Park. Without footwear, Koreans become house-ninjas. There’s always someone sneaking up on me, creeping noiselessly about from room to room in their stocking feet, catching me in the act of not expecting them.
I’m getting good at charades. Attempting to make any purchase has become a full-on street performance. If only my Korean was improving as well. I wish I’d have spent more time learning to read the language. Korean characters are everywhere like strange graffiti advertising products I cannot identify, transmitting messages I cannot receive. They might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics speeding by in some great indecipherable blur. I’m as vulnerable as an illiterate child, bound to poison himself eating from the wrong cupboard. There’s a sign that adorns the side of a building featuring a man wearing fishing waders. He’s pointing at an unmarked jar of white-lime fluid as large as his head and sporting an exaggerated, cartoon smile. Is he promoting this concoction? Letters from the Korean alphabet float about his head in three-dimensional, unreadable glory. Is it a warning of some kind? Something having to do with being waist-deep in water? Can I ignore this or would that be unwise?
For lunch, I ate something the texture of wet fat that tasted like peppered soil. It was served with a shot glass of water. I swear I’m the thirstiest man in all of South Korea.