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.
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.
Teaching isn’t as scary as I’d feared; it’s the children who frighten me. This week I was given my largest class yet. Two students. Eleven-year-old boys. When I imagined what managing a classroom would be like, I saw myself as one of those teachers who wordlessly instilled fear into his pupils. No student of mine would dare act up in class for fear of swift retribution in the form of my crushing disappointment at his or her lack of discipline. Believe me when I say, these two little assholes aren’t intimidated by me in the least. They’re like women, saying and doing outlandish shit at every opportunity because they know I can’t hit them.
Korean children who study English get to pick their own English names. There’s almost nothing in the Korean language that translates perfectly into English, least of all names. Sometimes students will choose their English names on the spot, without much thought or enthusiasm, as if the whole process means nothing, which it does. I now have two goals I aim to complete during my stay here: 1) being granted permission to take any one of the countless personal scooters in this country for a spin around the block, and 2) successfully suggesting the name “Leonard” to one of my students.
A new teacher arrived the other day and is spending his first few days much the same as I did; observing classes, getting lost, nodding off and generally losing the fight with jet lag. I’m reminded of those first disorienting hours and reason that he could no doubt use a friend. But, I’ve decided I don’t like him very much. His name is Harvard. Well, as far as you’re concerned, because that’s all he talks about. I gather he went to school there. He’ll tell you if you ask him. He’ll tell you if you don’t. I wish they would’ve given him some instruction on not being so odd and pompous. Harvard is afraid of spicy food, and strenuous exercise, and heights, and alcohol, and effort, and gambling, and coffee, and chopsticks, and girls. I’m sure the list goes on, but I’ve only known him for a few days. These fears are each badges of honor he pins proudly to his willowy chest. He makes grandiose declarative statements of opinion as if they’re fact like, “Eating more than three meals a day is dangerous and stupid. You should never eat more than three meals a day.” He says things like, “I don’t think about sex; I don’t concern myself with such things.” I say things like, “Get the fuck away from me; you creep me out.”
I have yet to see anyone get arrested. I have yet to see anyone get pulled over. In fact, I can’t say for sure if I’ve even seen a law enforcement officer, or if I would recognize one if I did. What is illegal? That seems like information that might be useful to know. It could certainly be careless to assume I’m granted the same freedoms here as I am in the States. For instance, I know that South Koreans don’t have the right to bear arms. Given the language barrier, would I even be able to understand that I was being arrested if I was? I guess if I’m maced in the eyes and hauled off to a prison cell by angry men in uniform I’ll understand enough. I must have forgotten the secret handshake.
In Seoul over the weekend, I was following my employer and Harvard through a multi-story shopping complex on our way to lunch. As usual, I was carrying garbage around in my hands looking for a trash receptacle when I spotted one and excitedly moved to discard my burden. When I looked up, they were gone, lost in a vast, undulating sea of Asianness. I have no cell phone. I have no idea where I am. I am utterly dependent. Sure, I could hail a cab and manage to stutter and stammer my way to the airport and get a ticket home to America, if need be, but that’s not exactly pragmatic. For a brief moment I was six-years-old again, terrified and wandering in panicked circles through the department store in search of my mother. Thirty tenuous seconds passed until, for the first -and what I’m sure will be the only- moment in my life, I was happy to see Harvard strolling in his awkward, too-weird-for-everything gait headed in my direction.
The city is pregnant with summer and she is starting to sweat like a fierce hog. I can’t see any stars in the night sky over Gwangju or any city I’ve visited in South Korea. Light pollution. Too many people all gathered in one relatively small place all needing to see or advertise in the dark. I’m not, however, want for hundreds of screaming, red neon crucifixes to dot the skyline at night. It’s as if all the churches in South Korea hired the same contractor, and the closest he’s ever been to Christ was a twenty-four hour chapel on the Vegas strip.
Meeting other Americans is less of a comfort than you might imagine. I’m not crazy about other whites encroaching upon my cultural furlough. Look at Harvard. I mean, if I I’m going to meet some delicate, overweening, pretentious asshole, I’d rather he be from a different country at least. Korean people are always trying to recommend bars and restaurants to me that are popular among foreigners. It’s unnecessary. There’s something very stark and vacant to me about American people all herded together in a mecca of cultivation such as this, waxing nostalgic about their prestigious degrees from their illustrious alma maters, watching American baseball, drinking American beers, calling each other “brah” and comparing iPhone apps. For some reason, it’s more fascinating to watch Koreans do the exact same thing.
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.