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.