Never in my life have I been so excited to buy a bed sheet. At least I think it’s a bed sheet. It feels more like a curtain. Why would anyone want to put this on their body? Is it made from burlap? I did! I bought a fucking curtain to cover me while I sleep.
I took a week’s vacation last week. A vacation from my vacation. None of it feels real. I think it’s the lack of any tangible consequence to anything I’m doing. I mean, the worst that could possibly happen is I’m fired and sent home, forced to evaluate my next move. But then, I have to do that anyway even if I complete my contract to its end. I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t spending significant portions of my day focused on the next part of the plan. If this is my career then what’s the next step to advancement? How do I make more money, earn more respect, invalidate the other guy and nail his girlfriend? This isn’t a career. This is more like “Korea: The Game.” This is a holiday from ambition. Even the money looks fake.
By far, the cheapest place to stay in the city of Busan, South Korea is the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse near Gwangalli Beach. It’s run by a former traveler-turned-hostel owner named Mr. Lee who prefers to simply be called Lee. It’s a four bedroom apartment on the top floor of a tumble-down brick building, a ten-minute walk from the beach. Three of the rooms are loaded end-to-end with bunk beds covered in mosquito nets; the other is Lee’s. Fifteen dollars will get you a bed for the night, and we decided to stay for seven.
Lee’s lifestyle is one I can’t get my head around. It’s just him. He has no secretary, no wife, no assistant. The man can’t leave. He’s both at work and at home simultaneously. Drifters and vagabonds nightly arrive to loaf in his home, to sweat into his furniture, to shit into his plumbing. There are terse, handwritten notes scattered about his home, taped to each appliance instructing guests to put things back where they found them, to firmly turn the hot water knob in the bathroom so as to prevent the faucet from leaking, to wash any dishes that they use, to wipe their feet before they enter, to not feed the dog, to not screw on the roof. For all the charm of the Actor and Tourist Guesthouse it’s hot as living hell during summer’s peak. Lee insists that the air conditioner is to be run only between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am. For the remainder of your stay, relief comes only in the form of electric fans running on timers to keep you cool inside the nylon womb of your mosquito net. Inevitably, you nod out, the timer goes off and with it the fan, and you wake up stuck to the mattress in a viscous soup of sweat, sand and drool. It’s here that I learn about Korean Fan Death.
All fans sold in South Korea come with a timer feature to prevent the fan from running uninterrupted throughout the entire night. I mistakenly assumed this was an energy conservation feature. It is not. In Korea–and only in Korea–there’s a popular belief that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those inside. I’m not kidding. There are many ‘scientific’ explanations given to an individual with enough curiosity to ask about this ‘phenomenon,’ each one more preposterous than the previous: that if the fan is put directly in front of the face of the sleeping person, it will suck all the air away, preventing one from breathing; that the fan uses up the oxygen in the room and creates fatal levels of carbon dioxide; that an electric fan creates a vortex, which sucks the oxygen from the enclosed and sealed room and creates a partial vacuum inside; and–my personal favorite–that an electric fan chops up all the oxygen particles in the air leaving none to breathe. Now, I’m not saying that all Koreans buy into this shit, but there are enough to obviously impact and alter the way in which all electric fans are mass-produced in this country.
Otherwise, the week I spent hopping around the various beaches and bars of Busan, South Korea was hands-down the most surreal, liberating, disengaged and hypnotic week of my brief thirty-two years. The kind of existential unreal that I know, even while I’m in it, I’ll have a hard time believing afterwards that it even happened. Moving at such a leisurely pace that I half expect time to slow itself to a more permissive grind and accommodate me. Meeting total strangers from Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Russia. Forming solid, meaningful bonds over some dangerous, exotic meal, before some glorious, effulgent backdrop only to bid farewell two or three days later to become total strangers, forevermore. Watching Koreans–and not just fat kids, either–swimming in the ocean in their clothing, in full rain gear, hoods up and pulled tight, sunglasses on, masks secure. This occurring more than you would believe. Some say there exists a fear of the sun’s harmful rays. Or a fear that one will take on the reddish-brown hue of the common laborers who work the fields. Either way, I cannot possibly exaggerate the fact. It’s a gorgeous day. Where’s your wool sweater? Don’t you wanna get into the ocean? Well, then put some jeans on! What are you waiting for? Grab your turtleneck, moron, and enjoy the beach. At night, eating whole schools of raw fish, cursing loudly in English among the multitudes on the beach, broke, nothing in my pockets but sand, firing a roman candle at Gwangan bridge and suddenly, as if I was drugged and startled awake from the hallucination of it all, it’s over.
At home, staring out the window of my shitty high-rise, mere hours before returning to work and I’m watching the lightning pulse like an electric artery just beneath the flesh of the sky, never cutting through; watching the evening wink out light by light in the buildings across the empty street; sounding out in my head the giant, now-familiar Korean letters etched in fluttering neon on the public bathhouse next door; anticipating the sun rising on this still new, exciting hemisphere.
In the morning Bill is fired again. This time he loses his job.