I don’t have a TV, nor can I read Korean newspapers, but I still catch wind of new threats being made by my crazy neighbors to the north. It’s the sort of talk that gets around. I say “my neighbors” because for the time being, that’s exactly what they are. Living here, you can’t imagine it’s anything like an insane, belligerent and irrational Canada threatening the U.S. with nuclear annihilation; you have to imagine an insane, belligerent and irrational New Jersey threatening Delaware with nuclear annihilation. It’s slightly closer to a psychopath than I would prefer to live. Now, I’m not exactly up to speed on what kind of military capabilities the North possesses, but the very fact that your next door neighbor is threatening to rig your doorstep with any kind of explosive can be a little unsettling.
I can’t pinpoint why exactly, but it doesn’t bring about the anxiety I might have thought it would. There is even a depraved side of me that secretly yearns for some survivable disaster, a calamity from which I can most certainly escape with a new and remarkable story to tell. That’s the key though, isn’t it? Surviving the ordeal. Preferably with all motor skills, cognitive abilities and limbs intact. I find myself contemplating death a lot during my stay here. My death, mind you … not yours. It’s not simply a morbid byproduct of my current proximity to these recent hostilities. There’s more. I think the absence of familiar comforts plays a role. Without ever having to consciously acknowledge it before, I want to die in comfort, surrounded by more friends than I actually have. Like a going away party where I leave just before things get really out of control. Granted, I have grown comfortable with some aspects of life in South Korea, accustomed to certain things. There are countless meals and dishes I know I will crave almost immediately upon returning. The fascination of strangers with my whiteness no longer holds the same amusement for me as it once did. I’ve even come to embrace the bareness of my living accommodations. But these aren’t exactly the sort of comforts that would in any way help to put you at ease at the inception of your mortal demise. So in spite of these, I still–countless times throughout the day–say to myself, I do not want to die in South Korea. And I mean it.
Before Christmas, I’m looking for strange, unique oddities to send home, bizarre gifts or trinkets of a manageable size that I can mail to my family. It occurs to me that I’m so out of touch that some of this crap could very well have been among the popular kitsch that was available in the States before I even left. I’m curiously investigating solar-powered, bobble-headed, brightly colored plastic gadgets and doodads and wondering if they’d be novel to my nephews back home, or only to me.
I don’t think I ever worried so much about being a douche bag until I became an uncle. My nephews don’t look to me to provide them with any sense of right or wrong. This is already provided for them by their parents. I have no serious responsibility to them. I feel like my only real job where they’re concerned is to be likable and maybe buy them some cool shit from time to time. There’s something about this relationship that strikes me as being almost more demanding than that of a parent and a child. I mean, anybody can tell a kid to mind their manners, treat people the way that you want to be treated, don’t lie, cheat or play in your own feces. Brush your teeth. Go to bed. Stop playing pee-pee tag. How difficult is it really to be a parent these days? Any moron with a vagina can do it. It takes something special to pull off being a good uncle. I have to be cool. That’s a lot of pressure. No child thinks his parents are cool, but kids are supposed to like their uncles. What does it say about me if I fail at something at which even children think I should be good?
Christmas comes and goes with very little fanfare in Korea. The music can be heard in the overpriced coffee shops, Korean renditions of the more popular songs. Decorations can be seen hanging in several locations. My students tell me that most families do not exchange presents but instead go out to eat in nice restaurants, so I decide to treat myself to some western-style comfort food at a T.G.I. Friday’s.
The week that follows is a vacation from work, so I take the opportunity to visit the island of Jeju to the south. It’s Korea’s most famous island and home to the country’s largest peak: Hallasan. I scout the local weather predictions and try to determine the most agreeable day to make the arduous climb to the summit. To reach the highest point of the rim on the mouth of Hallasan’s dormant volcano, there is a shelter that must be reached first, and it must be reached by noon during the winter months or you will not be allowed to pass. This is to eliminate the need for nighttime rescue attempts and to ensure that no one is forced to make the long, demanding descent in the dark. I arrive at the entry point before sunrise and stop into a store near the trail to purchase some gloves. The man behind the counter places a thirty dollar pair of crampons in front of me and begins to communicate one of two messages: either that I not even attempt to climb this mountain at all without them, or that I truly don’t need them at all to climb this mountain. I’m certain it’s the former, but since most Korean hikers arm themselves with all manner of unnecessary equipment from ski poles to helmets, I assume my Gore-Tex boots will suffice. I am wrong.
Every inch of the trail is buried in snow made slick by the trampling of those who have gone before me. The mountain is as wild and untouched as anything I’ve seen in Korea, made even more so by its frozen, crystallized state. The slopes possess a gentle incline, but they are long, and progress is slow. Hours pass with very little change to my surroundings of laurel and both leafless and evergreen trees rising up from the pristine landscape of bright, clean snow. The forest looks as sedate as the volcano on which it rests. My climb is a fight that takes place more in the mind than in the lungs. It’s late in the morning when the final two kilometers of the trail begin to steepen. In many places, I have less than a meter of width to a path that snakes its way around the sharply rising cone. It is during this last stretch of the ascent that I am now exposed to the full brunt of the elements. The sky is a clear and perfect blue, but the sudden force of the wind is enough to stagger me. Snow that hasn’t been beaten down is easily lifted and whipped about with a ferocity that abrades any exposed skin. Because I chose to forgo the crampons, I must pick my steps carefully, and I slip often. More than once I lose my balance and dig wildly and desperately into the snow itself for a handhold. When I stop to take in the view I am astonished by what can be seen at this elevation. I am literally above the clouds, and the land and sea beneath them appear as if under some barely transparent veneer. There is a definite bend to the horizon, and the sight is only rivaled by those that I’ve seen from the windows of airplanes. Approaching the peak, a set of wooden stairs has been built where snow and frost are accumulating and growing out from the sides of the wooden guide posts like horizontal stalagmites–driven there by the terrific, interminable wind. Layers of clothing are lifted and pulled from my body while snow and tiny bits of ice seize the opportunity to enter. When I finally reach the summit the wind is so intense that it’s difficult to keep my eyes open for very long. At the highest point on the rim I manage to briefly steady myself for an instant to look into the gaping maw of this long dormant monster. I shoot a few pictures of the frozen crater lake and try to appreciate the moment as best I can but quickly turn back to begin the more treacherous return below. All that time and effort, I think to myself, for the briefest of moments that I can just barely see or enjoy.
It’s the nicest weather I see all week and a number of options are immediately removed from the itinerary as a result. Attractions are closed. Festivities are canceled. A friend suggests taking a bus out to Seongsan where a volcanic crater with vertical cliffs named Sunrise Peak rises up from the shore. It’s the easternmost tip of Jeju island and therefore the first place to see each day’s new sun. We read the following information on the official website for the town’s annual New Year celebration: “On December 31, in celebration of the New Year, there is a torchlight show, a campfire and fireworks. A traditional shamanic ritual called gut is performed along with other fascinating performances.” It’s the “shamanic ritual called gut” that seals the deal for me, so we waste little time and catch a bus to Korea’s premier New Year’s party on the day of New Year’s Eve. I think to sneak a few minutes of rest on the ride out until I am startled awake by the almost crashing of our bus on the slush-slick roads. After securing a room for the night, we find ourselves a bowl of chigae in a small, unassuming restaurant where the verbose drunkard sitting next to us alternates between talking ceaselessly to himself and shouting in Korean at us. I assume that before long things will become naturally apparent, that some semblance of celebration will begin to take shape. Again, I am wrong.
We ask around. We are told that the festival has been called off on account of the weather. We are told that people will still be getting up early to view the sunrise from the famous Sunrise Peak on the top of the volcanic crater. It hails. We wander aimlessly. We join an inviting trio on their way to a karaoke room then elect to tick off the remaining minutes of 2010 while watching a CSI marathon on the Super Action channel in our motel room. We fall asleep to the comforting sounds of softcore Japanese porn. We rise before the much anticipated sun and walk to the entrance to the peak. We are told that we cannot climb to Sunrise Peak, the trails are presumably too icy and dangerous. A formidable mob gathers and we join it as it pushes onward towards the base of the crater. We huddle in the cold, windy dark, waiting for the sun to once again begin its ancient circuit. We wait. And we wait. We joke that maybe it won’t rise today, and then a funny thing happens … it doesn’t. The world is gradually illuminated. We begin to look around at one another, as if someone might offer an explanation, while day breaks behind an obstinate curtain of cloud without any one of us ever actually catching sight of the sonofabitching sun.
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.
I’m standing in a long line to get blasted in the face with mud. When I get to the front of the line I stand perfectly still and close my eyes to allow two small Korean boys to slam bucket loads of mud directly at my head as hard as they can. Afterwards, I get into a longer line where people are waiting to gain admittance into a giant inflatable swimming pool filled with mud where drunken degenerates are tackling one another and generally attempting to inflict as much pain as is legally appropriate. People who have no interest or patience to wait in line for this kind of abuse are gathered around smaller pools of mud where they are given brushes with which they liberally apply the stuff themselves. Someone is being held down by a mean and formidable mob of inebriated mud-thugs who are mashing handfuls of it into his or her hair.
It’s all a part of the most ridiculous, absurd and utterly magnificent thing to which I’ve ever been a party. Mudfest is a festival that happens once a year in an otherwise quieter seaside town on the western coast of South Korea called Boryeong. I’ve heard mutterings of “beneficial properties” and “therapeutic effects” but I think mainly it’s an excuse for foreigners to get stupid. In any other situation you would avoid these circumstances at all costs. If you were provided the same opportunity, propositioned in the same manner, anywhere else in the world, on any other day you would have the person arrested. You would do well to steer clear of the wild-looking intoxicated Asian wielding a bucket of mud and meaning to sling it at your eyes. But here, you wait in line. They whip so much mud at you that you’re breathing it. It’s in your lungs, up your nostrils, down your throat, and under your balls. An hour in the ocean and you’re still finding a swath behind your ears. They have to tell you to move on or you’d stay there and ask for more. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I can’t explain it, but it’s true. No, sir, you must move along. Find another attraction or get back to the end of the line. Do you think all this mud is for you, sir? There are lots of people here today and they are all hoping to get blasted in the face with this mud. Do you think this mud grows on trees? Okay, step right up. I’ve got fresh, wet filth and I’m willing to smash it right into your face with as much force as I can muster, if you’ll only step right this way. No, sir. Not you again. You’ve already been blasted in the face once with this disgusting garbage. I asked you nicely, now please, get to the back of the line, and then I will again gladly smack you as hard as I can in the lips with this heaping bucket of muck.
My roommate, Bill, and I find a minbak in which to sleep which is really just a room in the home of some Korean family with more space than they need. They provide us with blankets and pillows and a broken television. In the morning I realize we have an extra person in the room with us. I don’t recognize her but she seems cozy enough with Bill. She’s Korean and looks as if she might be thirty-years-old, or she might be fifty. She shows no sign of leaving, so I do. I walk down the boardwalk and overdose on shellfish and sunshine. Later, when I meet Bill he’s still accompanied by his mystery-aged consort.
“She was much better-looking last night,” he assures me. “I remember thinking how impressed you’d be by the native I pulled.”
I take this as cue that she doesn’t understand much English and say, “I’m impressed that anyone would look at that mouth and carelessly put their tongue in it. Her teeth are wrecked.” She now realizes that she is the subject of our conversation and flashes me a crooked, brown smile. She waves. I smile and wave back.
We spend the rest of the day enjoying our dying weekend, burning on the beach, devising convoluted schemes to lose Bill’s newly acquired barnacle, trying desperately to guess her exact age.
“She’s got wrinkles, dude. That puts her older than thirty-five. And Korean women age better than American broads, so what’s that tell you?”
“Yeah, but she’s wearing braces. Women that old don’t wear braces.”
“I don’t think those are braces. I think she’s just in desperate need of a good brushing.”
Fortunately, Bill never succeeded in escaping her clutches. She was remarkably useful after realizing that we had missed our bus back home, and there were no more buses running. There’s nothing quite like standing in line for a ticket home only to be told, “No, there are no more tickets home. You can’t get there from here. No home for you.” In a reversal of roles, we begin following our newest, dearest friend all over Boryeong until six hours later she lands us on a train headed back home to Gwangju.
At the train station, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that read in English: “Pain Is Temporary, Pride Is Forever,” and I thought: No, that’s temporary, too. That’s a fairly narrow viewpoint of forever, isn’t it? Pride lasts forever? How do you figure? Where does your pride go when you die? Do your children inherit your pride as well as your debt? Surely, sooner or later, someone in your lineage will neglect to bequeath your pride on down the line. You can’t expect it to be as important to them as it was to you, no matter how much pain it cost. I like to listen to men talk about their “legacy,” and what they “leave behind.” Let’s face it, at some point it becomes more convenient to forget you. Maybe someone will write a book about you; that will surely make it easier for us to remember how great you were. But, like pain, those are temporary, too. Pain is temporary? Life is temporary. Ripeness is all. Enjoy.
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.
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.
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.
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.