I’m standing in the emergency room looking at x-rays of my torso over the shoulders of Mr. Park and a doctor whose name I didn’t catch. They’ve been speaking to each other for quite some time, and neither feels any immediate urge to bring me into the conversation just yet. I’m still not sure if it’s a quality that is shared by other languages I don’t speak, but humorless Korean dialogue always sounds deadly serious to me. This could very well be magnified by the mysterious pain I’m experiencing in my back.
The other morning I awoke with a curious, mild discomfort in the backside of my ribs on the left side. I thought little of it and went to the gym. The next morning I woke up to a more severe and immediate discomfort and became convinced that my workout must have aggravated something back there. A few days passed and I began to feel better. Then earlier tonight while teaching a private lesson, stretching in my chair while my student butchers the pronunciation of rural, I’m digging and poking and feeling around near where I imagine the problem must lie, when something gives. There is a distinct pop or snap, and it’s so absurd and unexpected that I can’t help but laugh. I ask my student if she heard it, but she only looks at me with that curious, canine tilt of the head that universally communicates bewilderment. An hour later in the teachers’ lounge I sneeze, and it drops me like a bullet fired from a sniper rifle hidden in the dark recesses of the building across the street. It feels as if the impossibly strong mechanical arm of an iron monkey has grasped one of the bones of my ribcage and begun to twist and swing. My mouth is agape, and breathing becomes a concentrated effort. It gradually subsides, and I’m able to request transport to my current location.
It’s not a place I’d hoped to visit during my stay in the Republic of Korea. It looks more like an army barracks than a hospital. There are no curtains hung for privacy, and I bear witness to suffering more profound than my own on at least one bed in a dimly lit corner in the back. After much gesticulation and a seemingly endless conversation concerning–presumably–the results of my x-rays and–hopefully–my well-being, Mr. Park turns to me and says, “He doesn’t see anything.” This confirms what I’ve long-believed about doctors: they’re not worth visiting unless you already know what’s wrong with you. They hand me some non-narcotic pills for the pain and shoot me in the ass with something that disappointingly packs no euphoric punch.
The following day Mr. Park picks me up for a return trip to the same hospital where it is suggested that I receive a CT scan. As I sit uncomfortably awaiting the results from the scan, I begin to consider all the new and wonderful challenges being put to my body’s various systems in this foreign environment. I imagine exciting mutations of strains of viruses taking place under a microscopic eye. Is not the common Korean cold uncommon to my American immune system? I begin to confront the ugliness that hospital waiting rooms rub our noses in. I remember hearing somewhere that the quickest way to give yourself cancer is to run around worrying that you have it. If only that were true of larger penises. How does that work anyway? The very act of trying not to think about something always ensures that I devote all of my psychic powers on precisely that thing. Is it like a swear jar in the mind that slowly fills with each passing thought of the word until the jar overflows, reaching critical mass? See, I’m afraid to even mention it again. I’ve already said it once. It reminds me of attending church as a child and trying–but failing miserably–not to think of sodomy and sin.
Finally, I’m pulled into a private room for a repeat of last night’s performance of me wondering anxiously as to what is being said about my mutinous ribcage. Jaws part. Words fall out. Fingers point. Eyes lose focus. Mr Park turns to me and says, “He doesn’t see anything.” They tell me that they can only treat me for the pain and send me on my way. I am escorted to another room, on another floor, where I am told that I will receive injection therapy. This involves more than a few injections of more than a few drugs into an inexact, nonspecific approximation of the pain site. I recall mentioning once before the trust that is implicit in purchasing over the counter medication here. I think of this as upping the stakes a little.
When the doctor is finished he talks at me from my right. Mr. Park translates on my left.
“The doctor wants to know how you feel,” he says.
“I feel like a pincushion.”
“He says that you may feel some soreness back there over the next few days.”
“I already feel soreness back there. I thought that’s why we were here. ”
“Yes, but you may feel more sore because of the many injections he has given you.” I shit you not, that’s what he says to me.
Days pass. Weeks pass. I teach. I make a trip to Busan to reconnect with friends there. I feel better but the discomfort lingers and dies slowly like the memory of something precious that has been lost forever. I can’t help but prod the soreness as if I might learn something more about what is happening to me. I find a place that hurts when I push on it … so I push on it. I find another, and another, and I push on those as well. I’m positively certain I can feel one of the bones of my ribcage depress like a piano key. At least I think I’m positively certain. I search the other side of my back for inconsistencies with my left hand. God forbid I find something there that hurts as well.
I eventually tire of this self-flagellation and decide to learn how to snowboard over the Lunar New Year holiday. After three straight days of landing on my ass, elbows, knees and face, the pain in my ribs is an inaudible whisper beneath the screams of these new bruises. The puzzle of how to stay upright under such bizarre circumstances is healthy for my cyclical mind. The slopes are unforgiving, and I am beaten and punished for every mistake I make, and I make a lot. Like anything worth doing in Korea, it is done amid throngs of people on all sides and at every turn. There are at least two occasions where I take out other skiers at the knees. Our limbs violently intertwine and we slide as helpless prisoners of gravity until we slow and eventually stop in an awkward, asexual 69. Somehow throughout the process I get better. I learn something. I fall less, until I’m only stopping myself when I do it on purpose to avoid wearing Korean kids like bug shit on my rental gear.
It’s one of many experiences that remind me I am doing wrong by my country. The other day I ordered two sandwiches to go from the KFC in the bus terminal. Before they were ready I changed my mind and decided that I would take a seat and eat them inside the restaurant. I took up an entire table to eat the food that I moments ago had announced I would be taking out. I am Korea’s shining example of every foreigner’s unfailing stupidity and complete ineptitude for assimilation into other cultures beyond their own. As if we don’t have takeout where I come from. As if we don’t have KFC. America is held accountable for all the dumb shit I’ve done since I arrived here. I am your bumbling ambassador. I spoke exclusively in Spanish for the first three weeks that I was here. I’ve blackened each eye. One from falling up a mountain. One from walking into a closed door. My latest feat: a trip to the emergency room for an injury that I apparently managed to sustain in my sleep.
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.
South Korea’s westernmost island in the Yellow Sea is Hongdo, and it’s home to around 700 people who give me the impression that they’d rather you not visit. When I arrive in the middle of the day the fog is so thick that it veils nearly all from sight. I hear the sounds of the wharf, the waves lapping lazily against the shore. I can smell the salt in the air, and the acrid, metallic odor of the myriad fish brought in from sea is so strong I can taste it. I know that I am on an island surrounded by ocean, but I am virtually blind to that fact and can see only what is five feet in front of me. From out of the mist shuffles a hunched old woman with brown, leathery skin like au gratin, and she’s advertising a room for the night. I only know this because a Korean woman I met on the party boat tells me so.
Ah, the party boat. Perhaps I should start there …
Total fucking bedlam. I’m not sure what I expected from the two and a half hour ferry ride from the city of Mokpo out to the island, but it wasn’t the raging kegger that greeted me. This fiasco was replete with singing, drinking, screaming, dancing, brawling, gambling and open flame. Shortly after departure, my lap was full of things being shared and passed my way by those sitting next to me. At no point during the trip was I empty-handed. From oranges to corn chips to Dixie cups of Korean liquor to rice cakes to cup ramen to pieces of cooked pork to plenty of shit I failed to identify. I’m certain I pissed someone off by refusing most of it. I quickly gathered that this was a popular thing to do among the adults of Mokpo: call up the Kims down the street and ask if they’ll watch the kids this weekend, call up the other Kims next door and see if they want to party like teenage assholes on the island of Hongdo, load the entire pantry into a suitcase, catch the ferry Saturday afternoon and proceed to get blackout drunk before you ever get off the boat.
We doubled the population of the island simply by stepping off the ferry, and our half was drunk to the nines. This helps to explain the frosty reception I was experiencing in some of the establishments I had visited. Imagine if every member of your tiny, peaceful island community suddenly spawned a drunken, unreasonable twin one foggy Saturday afternoon, threw a decadent, end-of-the-world-style-party all over your idyllic, tranquil paradise and then left just as suddenly. I felt like the calm, discerning eye in a hurricane of stupid.
Okay, back to the fog …
My friend Pete and I drop our bags in the room we rented from the stooped old woman we met on the wharf and head off in search of a peak to climb, wondering if it’s possible to climb above the lethargic mist. Our first attempt takes us high into the terraced fields of someone’s farm. The fog is oppressive, almost supernatural, and succeeds in making dusk out of what should be early afternoon. Eventually, we locate a manicured path being navigated by other hikers, obvious in their superfluous neon gear and apparel. My visibility is so hampered that I look to the sky and note that the full moon is visible in the middle of the day, only to realize after climbing a few meters higher that I’m looking into the sun. The fog is thinning the higher we go and before long gives way to a gorgeous day, hiding above a blanket of gloom. The sky is a cloudless blue, the sun is warm, and I can see as far as the horizon permits. My surroundings are so quickly dissimilar that I find myself nearly disoriented. Standing in the approximate boundary between these two contradictory spaces, it’s as if I am treading water. I see a few, isolated peaks cutting through the ocean of white like the immense dorsal fins of some prehistoric leviathan. Feeling rejuvenated by the view and assured of an escape from the cloying haze, we begin climbing in earnest, shedding layers as we go. The hike itself is an unassuming one, but the reward is great.
Looking down from the highest point on Hongdo, with all of existence beneath an altitude of 100 meters buried under a covering of smoke, with even the tiny fishing village of the island obscured from view, it’s easy to forget that there is more to the world. It’s easy to feel, if for only a second, that you have succeeded in disappearing from all that you once were, all that once identified you. Untethered and weightless.
Descending back into the cumbersome drear, we hear the drunken revelry before we see it.
The next morning the fog has lifted, and I am able to appreciate with new eyes the haven that exists here for Koreans who desire less than the crowded peninsula has to offer.
The time remaining on my contract dwindles. When the weather begins turning warm again I’ll soon after be heading home to consider my next step. There are times I feel a great, sad weight of loneliness settle upon me, heavy and discomforting like wet linen. Not the bright, sharp, panicky loneliness of youth but a dull, aching awareness of momentous change having occurred, the knowledge that some things can never be the same again.
This past Sunday I was returning from another weekend trip to Busan, about to begin reading away the three hour bus ride when two other English-speaking foreigners boarded the bus and sat behind me where I could overhear their conversation. I tried to focus on the novel in my hands but couldn’t, needing to reread line after line. I could understand distinctly every empty and inane word that came from their bleating mouths, and it maddened me. I soon found my earbuds and gratefully became reacquainted with my inconsolable alienation once again.
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.
In the weeks that follow my dog’s death, I punish myself–for whatever culpability I might claim for his demise–on progressively higher climbs into the mountains of South Korea. I’ve committed myself fully to the pursuit of the most impressive peaks this country has to offer. This is how I grieve. It cannot be overstated how beneficial the exercise and scenery is for my state of mind. A greater medication I haven’t found. Each weekend I’m hopping from big buses from big cities, onto smaller buses in smaller cities that serve as the disparate gateways to these majestic monsters looming above them all. I reflect on my first month here spent in a kind of trepidation at the thought of attempting to make my way from one location to the next in this insane, confounding carnival. I still get lost, but never for very long. Reading the language is almost effortless now, and fortunately the Korean term for bus terminal is “bus terminal.”
The reception of English-speaking foreigners in the more rural locales I’ve visited is even warmer than what I’ve already come to expect in the larger cities. On the trails, entrenched in the belly of the Korean hiking subculture, it’s even more so. No one is surly or disagreeable on the slopes of Songnisan, not even after climbing a thousand meters into the sky. I encounter no discourtesy on the Cloud Bridge spanning one of the many chasms of Wolchulsan. It’s a pleasure to see you, an honor that you’ve taken the time to visit this part of the world. Are you hungry or tired? Rest, please, have something to eat.
I behold such sights on these excursions as to almost believe that by tossing a rock into the distance I might expose the whole scene for a well-constructed forgery or illusion. One such vision can be found from the highest point on Mt. Songni, or Songnisan, situated in the center of the peninsula. I begin the hike later than anticipated, and start out from one of the larger Buddhist temples in the country, heading towards the second highest peak called Munjangdae. It takes a little over two hours of pleasant but demanding exertion, under cover of foliage just beginning to flaunt its reds and yellows, before I reach the rock for which the peak is named. The weather is perfect and I pass hordes of Korean hikers heading in both directions. It occurs to me that I never tire of this: the sunshine, the white clouds hanging in a blue sky, casting their enormous shadows over green treetops. On how many days have I woken to the exact same thing? I’m grateful that it still has the force to steal my breath.
From Munjangdae, it’s another two and a half hours across the ridge to Cheonhwangbong, the highest peak. Hiking through bamboo as tall as I am, I’m occasionally granted a glimpse of the landscape beyond, and am reminded of the weirdness of precisely where I am, where I’m from and how I came to be here. I’m aware that the day is growing late, and have come to accept that at least part of my descent will be made in the dark. It’s been more than an hour since I’ve heard another human being, let alone seen a fellow hiker. You have to have hiked in this country before at some point to fully understand how alarming this can be. The tall, wet bamboo eventually gives way to a meadow of brown and green grasses that blankets the saddle between the peak known as Birobong and the summit just ahead. For what might be the third or fourth time in the last five hours, I tell myself that I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life. Another half hour up a comparatively gentle slope, and I’m clambering over the last few boulders on hands and knees to what feels like the zenith of the world. It’s a modest piece of land, not much to it really, and yet at this very moment, I am certain it must command one of the prettiest, most quieting views that this planet has to offer. And it’s mine and mine alone, save the large flock of cawing black birds I scare into the fading orange light of the sky. So much sky … and an infinite ocean of verdant hills and valleys coupling beneath me to the limits of my vision. I feel exposed, vulnerable, stripped of all pretense but comfortably so, like being judged and not found wanting for anything. I stand above all that can be seen, above the mountains afar, above all other souls that have long since begun their descents, above all that is civilized and the worries of men. It’s a tiny, private heaven on Earth, and I can stay but only briefly.
Climbing down this mountain would be treacherous in the light of day. At dusk, it is a whole other beast entirely. My feet ache and I half expect to find them swollen, misshapen and black when I next have the luxury of removing my boots. My legs are weak and wobble as they do after sex. Nearly halfway down, I notice a curious give in my left knee, something beyond mere fatigue that would maybe worry me more if I weren’t so giddy from the joys I’ve just experienced. Night falls and I hear rushing streams and waterfalls but fail to illuminate them with my little flashlight. I don’t, however, miss two giant, pink slugs as long as my hand and as thick as my forefinger, scumming and sliming their way across my path. After seven straight hours of hiking, I finally limp into the small gathering of restaurants and shops that serve the visitors of Songnisan. I find a cheap motel room, and enjoy a hot shower, a change of clothes and a meal of barbecued duck across the street. The only road leading into the temple I mentioned earlier becomes a strip of neon lights at night. Street vendors and other travelers and backpackers shuffle about, looking for entertainment or sustenance. It’s all here because the mountain is. The people are kindred spirits, and I enjoy their company before retiring to my room, exhausted, to watch an episode of Shark Week with Korean subtitles.
The last time I hiked Mt. Mudeung I admired one of its neighboring peaks from a distance, a large rock outcrop featuring a number of sheer cliff faces. I later learn that it has been given the name Saeinbong. I set out this time to find my way there. It’s a beautiful September afternoon and at times a difficult climb, at others it’s downright grueling. I am rewarded, however, with one of the most enthralling views I’ve ever seen. An ocean of green mountain waves undulating out into the bend of the horizon. I take so many pictures that I begin to feel foolish. The beauty is limitless, almost redundant. I realize that I am never more in the present than when I am humbled by the magnificent vistas of unfamiliar destinations. Too bewildered at how insignificant and small I am, to be concerned with yesterday or tomorrow. Or, perhaps, it’s the entire process. The climb, the exertion. In pursuit of the difficult yet attainable, the prospect of something hard-earned and worthy of all that it cost. A metaphor for the very undertaking that has brought me here in the first place. I have yet to be disappointed when setting off to explore these remote, exotic mountaintops, and I am quickly becoming acquainted with more and more of them.
The following weekend I grab a bus to Busan again. On Saturday I visit the world’s largest department store (seriously, it’s in Guiness) and I buy a book on impulse because it sounds fantastic and the very first line sinks its hooks in deep. When I step outside I see a mountain in the distance covered in craggy spires of rock. There also appears to be a giant golden statue of Buddha peeking above the treetops halfway up its side so I decide to start hiking in that direction and see where it takes me. The first road that I attempt leads me to a dead end but I quickly find another that appears to go in the same direction. This one takes me up steep switchbacks through tightly packed rural hovels that become more and more sparse the higher I journey. After about an hour, thankful for the exercise but close to giving up the pursuit of a noteworthy perch from which to view the city, I reach a temple which is home to the aforementioned Buddha. From here I locate another path that seems to wind back out towards the face of the mountain and continue climbing for another hour or so until I discover what I was looking for. It’s remarkable this countryside. On foot, I can walk from the largest shopping complex on the planet to a mountaintop where I can then overlook the second largest city in the country in just an afternoon. The mountain is called Jangsan, and I never actually make it to the peak but do manage to find myself a view of the coastal city of Busan that I won’t soon forget.
The temperature is beginning to drop, autumn is preparing to roost before the onset of less accommodating weather. I resign myself to spend each of the remaining weekends exploring a new, unplumbed mountainside or national park or other Korean gem I have still to lay eyes on.
Yesterday, as is my habit, I roll over before rising from bed to begin the long, hard-fought process of starting up my antiquated laptop. I nod off while waiting for the internet homepage to load and then direct the browser to my email inbox when it finally does. I see that I’ve received a message from my step-sister who has been selflessly caring for my dog while I am away. Yet again, I’m confronted with heart-breaking news regarding his condition. He is having difficulty standing and getting around, and has of late been refusing food and water. The loss of muscle mass and connective tissue is beginning to warp his spine. He does not whine or cry out, I’m told. But then he wouldn’t. There is talk of putting him down and two days later it’s done.
I try to come to terms with this knowledge that the last time I saw him is the last time I ever will. All those times I grieved for him, believing that I was losing him, and this time it’s real. I am mourning the loss of my best friend in this place where I have none. My sorrow is compounded by the punishing certainty that I’ve abandoned him when he needed me most. For over nine years I was all that dog knew, his constant companion, and in the last–assuredly the most difficult–five months of his life, I was nowhere that he could find me. I was in such a goddamned hurry to leave. Was that precisely the instrument, then? Was my leaving the coup de grace? Perhaps, I’m erring a little into the melodramatic but this loss unmans me entirely.
Work is a chore requiring great effort and better composure than I possess. I am unfocused and vacant, and it is obvious. My employer inquires as to the nature of my disposition. When I explain, she looks at me like I’m a sentimental idiot, like some sad, weeping lunatic becoming overly emotional about the death of a plant. She smiles politely and says, “We had pets growing up.” I attempt a smile in return and that seems to conclude the conversation.
One of my more perceptive students asks, “Teacher? Sad?”
“Yes,” I say, “Teacher sad.”
With Bill no longer teaching at the school, my workload has doubled. I remember fondly sitting at my desk during the first couple months at work and reading for pleasure, taking long exploratory walks through the neighborhood, sitting down to eat in restaurants. It’s not that this work is hard. But it’s still work. I watched a little boy eat a booger and a scab all during the same class the other day. Now I pray daily that one of my private lessons will be canceled to permit me an interlude to the day’s tedium. It could be that one of my students comes down with a communicable sickness. Okay. Maybe one of my kids could attack another one of my kids with some terrible, improvised instrument lifted from the sidewalk, thus granting me twice the respite. Perfect. I call out to whatever gods might hear for car accidents and house fires, faulty swing sets and cadmium-tainted playthings. A plague of biblical proportions, perhaps.
I wake up one morning with a mouthful of something thick and brown that’s just been horked up from my lungs. This is karma. I think I can taste my spleen so I call off work and spend the rest of the day loudly hacking bloody sputum into the bathroom sink. I put Hawkster McLoogenspit to shame. I am what I hate. It persists for the next four or five weeks, and at one point appears to subside but never clears up. What is wrong with this place? Is it this apartment? I’m beset on all sides by cockroaches. Aren’t they the harbingers of blight and decrepitude, or some such wretchedness? While I sleep they scuttle about the sink and the range, and when I wake in the night and turn on the lights they scatter like swift cowards. I play a game where I sit quietly in the kitchen, cross-legged in my underwear, and hunt them. I keep the lights off and then turn them on unexpectedly to squash the bloated stragglers with rolled up fliers found taped to my door. Is this what’s keeping me sick? Am I inhaling the smashed filaments of dead cockroaches? They surely have their way with my dishes drying in the rack. All that miniscule contagion. The whole floor must be infected. The whole building! The tiny pestilent trailblazers are burrowing avenues of disease from one apartment to the next.
I fail to understand how I can be afflicted by something for this long and not see my condition deteriorate. I’ve avoided consulting a doctor for much worse in the States, and am less keen to the idea here. Death seems an implausible outcome, yet I can’t help wondering at the possibility of retching the last gasps of my existence beneath this unlikely sky. Is my body mailed home? How do Koreans prepare corpses for interment? Who pays for it all? Who opens the package on the receiving end? Am I gift-wrapped?
I make enough money to stock the refrigerator, to travel to places yet unseen. And I live simply, a mattress on the floor, a lamp, the clothes I could fit into two suitcases, two electric fans and a rice cooker. I can long for the possessions that I hope will one day come with greater wealth, and at the same time know that I will one day remember the freedom that accompanies their absence.
Having the apartment to myself does bring a quiet and welcomed privacy. I’m happier living alone–with exception to the cockroaches of course–and even the smells and the sounds of this place that were once so strange and unimaginable have become familiar and acceptable to me. It’s amazing what you can get used to. And yet, I am at the same time lucidly aware of being bereft of any substantial companionship. I write home asking for news of my dog. The response I receive is not promising. He’s lost more weight where there was little to lose. His eyesight is worsening. I wonder will I see him again, warm and cognizant. I contemplate leaving, jumping on an airplane and abandoning the job unexpectedly. Why do I stay? The contract? Because I said I would? Of what value to me is the opportunity that I would squander? Of what value am I to anyone here? I am without considerable emotional succor, and perhaps, that’s something I’ve taken for granted in the past. I think often of my strongest friendships and of women who’ve given me more than I’ve deserved. I think of family and the permanence therein.
Koreans need to consider an additional measurement when selling pants to Americans: girth. I don’t have the legs of an NFL running back, but buying jeans in this country makes me feel like Kirstie Alley. I brought one pair of jeans with me when I came that were suitable for a work environment, and in the time that I’ve been here I’ve managed to wear a hole in the crotch, right in the place where my right nut likes to swing. It’s nothing enormous–the hole that is–and I think I’ve been able to hide it well enough until last week when I caught the director’s brother staring right at my shit. I wasn’t helping matters any by sitting like a bow-legged pervert, and this happened to be at a school birthday party for a few of the female students who were turning fifteen this month. Oftentimes, I’ll put things off for as long as I possibly can until something happens that makes it necessary for me to take action. I don’t say that out of pride but honesty. This was the last time I would be wearing my crotchless denim to school.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ~
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m ready. No more saying goodbye. No more justification or explanation. No more milking all possible value out of these last few hours with my dog. No more watching my inebriated father molest my date at my going-away dinner in an effort to apologize for announcing that he wished I’d have married this other girl I dated ten years ago. It’s all over but the leaving. Well … not exactly, but that’s been the story these last couple weeks. I’ve already run into three people who thought I’d left already. They looked frustrated, as if I’d played some kind of trick on them. It’s feels like someone is slowly pulling the dressing off an old wound that you can’t reach or you’d have ripped it off already. Part of me wishes I’d have waited until today to spring it on everybody. It’s too much time, too much talk. Praise whatever maker you believe in that none of us knows our own death, or you’d exhaust yourself in an effort to squeeze as much joy as humanly possible into each and every second as they slowly tick off the doomsday clock. It’s like work. However, conversations do have a little more bulk these days. It almost makes you wish you could stay in this perpetual state of near-departure forever. People throw parties for you; they buy you gifts and speak to you with feeling about important shit. Maybe it’s a shame there isn’t more of that around without someone dying, or going off to war, or prison, or Korea. Although, given enough time, I’m sure it would become as tiresome as small talk.
Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go. This is what I wanted. I gotta say, it’s a little scary. This is me taking a deep breath. More walking, less talking. This is me parachuting. There’s no way in hell I spent enough time listening to those “How To Speak Korean” audio discs. This is me throwing myself against the rocks. I hope this internet thing continues to thrive. This is me getting lost. What’s Korean for, “Hey, now wait a second, that wasn’t in my contract?”
It occurred to me that there isn’t one item in my wallet that will be of any use to me upon landing in Korea. Preferred shopper cards to all the local grocery stores, business cards for enterprises not located in South Korea, even my driver’s license is useless to me there. I could easily reinvent myself. Okay, what can’t I change? My name, they have that now, but very little else. Say, for instance, I’ve always wanted to have a nickname. Nothing ever stuck when I was a kid. I was born to a vanilla name that didn’t appear to possess the kind of malleable properties necessary for creative ridicule. I envied the guys with firm, enduring aliases. It immediately suggests that there is at least one interesting thing about you. A nickname says to people, “I’m paid attention to enough by my peers to be given a moniker,” and they always come with some interesting story to validate them. I am now in a position to fabricate for myself a nickname with its very own unique anecdote to lend it credibility. Hi, I’m Troy but my friends call me Primo because I’ve always taken first place in every manly demonstration of prowess I’ve competed in. Or … I could be one of those guys who has a weird nickname that he won’t explain but still insists on going by. My name is Troy but everyone calls me Bandito. Don’t ask! Only two people in the world know the story behind that, and I don’t know you well enough to make you the third. Now I’m a man of mystery, see, spreading intrigue wherever I travel. You can call me Nubs. Just call me Scoots. Call me Tripper. I’m Bucket.
I’m a little disappointed that no one has begged me to stay. Apparently, nobody will fall apart without me here. I don’t imagine there won’t be those who miss me, but not one of them has fallen to their knees, scrabbling at the pavement, wailing at the thought of my absence. Maybe that’s how you know it’s really time to move on. Who would beg you not to leave? Your wife or husband? Don’t have one. Your children? Nope, not that I know of. If I didn’t name them, then they aren’t mine and they certainly don’t need me around failing to meet their expectations every other weekend. The people close to me don’t need me, which is very different from loving me. They want me to go nuts and travel the world. It’s as if they’re saying, “Go, we don’t need you. See if you can find someone who does.” To be fair, I’m very careful to avoid anyone growing reliant upon me. If I sense something like that might be happening, I’ll be sure to disappoint him or her early so as to prevent him or her from making a habit of it. Although, it could be that the reality of my departure hasn’t fully hit this certain someone just yet. I might be in store for a very public airport scene where someone yet unbeknownst to me will elude security to run out onto the runway in an effort to stop my flight so that I can be told just how necessary I really am. But, as I watch this person promptly ushered off to some undisclosed, basement broom closet beneath Pittsburgh International to be swept for explosive devices and waterboarded, I know I would only think: Jesus, who could function within the vice grip of that kind of dependence? Only in a Hollywood movie would someone find that sort of obvious insanity romantic. But, as it stands, no one shatters, I can breathe (and travel free of guilt), and if I die tomorrow my tombstone will read: Here lies Troy J. Craig; completely unnecessary.
There is this one girl. This trip was well on its way to happening by the time we met. It may have been the subject of our first conversation, in fact. It’s not a deal-breaker at that point. You haven’t even had dinner yet. By the time you think about putting on the brakes, it’s already too late.
“I like this. Maybe we should stop seeing each other.”
“I like this. Why would we stop seeing each other?”
“You’re leaving; where can it go?”
“We’re all gonna die eventually; where can any of it go?”
And, the two of you continue with this pointless exercise in futility that makes such perfect sense. I don’t know what happens tomorrow and I wanna try to stop living like I do. I want to fully comprehend the difference between sound preparation for the future, and behaving as if I possess consummate knowledge of what that future holds. I’m in love with this idea of any single moment in life preceding an infinite number of possibilities, an uncountable number of potential outcomes. Damn, that’s exciting! But, I spend so much time convincing myself that I know exactly how this situation or that situation will unfold that I shape my path to meet it. Thus, I turn my glorious, unpredictable journey into a mutinous, self-fulfilling prophecy. Stupid human.
Anyway, you have this thing, and it’s pretty cool, and just because you think you’re probably leaving town on business, it’s no reason to smash this thing into tiny, unrecognizable pieces. I asked before: how then do I better appreciate what’s mine, while it’s mine? Maybe real gratitude lies in the “not smashing” of the thing … that, and a little less attention to what you perceive to be the inevitable outcome. I’ll call it healthy repression. Ignoring periodically that death is waiting in ambush for you and could be lurking around any corner is natural, after all. A thing’s ultimate demise can be forgotten for a time; there is living to be done.
There was a fleeting moment when I entertained the idea of taking my dog with me to Korea. After all, I can’t remember being apart from him for more than a couple of nights in over eight years. That is a record commitment for me concerning relationships with other living things. His name is Solo because when he was a puppy only one of his testicles ever descended. He had both of them but the one was hidden from sight, tucked away somewhere safe in his innards, leaving that lonely gonad to hang there solo. When he was about nine months old he was diagnosed with an untreatable liver condition that keeps him extremely thin, but as he ages the symptoms have multiplied. You can’t pity him, though. I won’t let you. He doesn’t know that he’s sick, see? And I’ve never told him, so he behaves much like any ordinary, healthy dog would. He does, however, require medication and a little more attention to certain routines than you would probably give an adult dog without his condition. Doubtless, I am in no way prepared for the loss that I will experience upon leaving him behind. You can pity me. He’ll be fine – better than fine. He’ll be cared for by family who have land, dogs, horses, even pigs. I, on the other hand, will be inconsolable without him. I have no pigs.
People always say things like, “You need to appreciate what you have,” and “Be grateful.” Okay, I’m in. I want to fully acknowledge the blessing that is these last few days with my dog. How do I do that, exactly? Can someone describe to me the act of being grateful? Merriam-Webster describes appreciation as “a favorable critical estimate or sensitive awareness.” If I was to write down instructions to someone on how to appreciate what they have, what would the first line read? Okay, first, close your eyes. Always with the closing of the eyes, right? Alright, so I can’t do this while driving. I’m serious, though; I desperately want to better appreciate the now before I lose it. Oops, shit, there it went. Did I appreciate it enough? Can I be thankful for what I have while doing anything else or will this require all of my mental faculties? I’ve got things to do today. Can I practice flashing the perfect sideways peace sign in the mirror, all the while practicing perfect, heartfelt appreciation for my special bond with my dog? It seems unlikely. This is what sedentary, lazy people should say they’re doing when criticized by their lack of activity. “I’m appreciating this precious moment and I couldn’t possibly clean out the gutters without becoming distracted from that!” I suppose it all depends on the activity. I’ll bet I could be thankful for the time I have left with Solo while also taking him for a walk. We’ll start there.
Ultimately, I decided to not take him along because I have no idea what I’m getting into. I don’t know where I’m staying when I first arrive. Do people in South Korea keep dogs as pets? Would he need to be quarantined? Could I find an animal doctor for him? But the big question is, what’s really in his best interest? Before she agreed to take him in, my step-sister said she was worried that if something happened to him I might forever blame her. I told her I would be surprised if he was still alive when I returned. If you think that’s hard to hear, imagine how hard it is for me to say it. When he was diagnosed, I asked the question that everyone asks: “How long does he have?” They took a guess but they did it in months. Eight years is the low-end of a healthy Doberman’s life-expectancy and he’s closing in on nine. It doesn’t seem like a reasonable expectation to imagine he might be here when I return. However, I’ve grieved for this dog believing on half a dozen occasions that I was spending my last moments with him only to see him recover, time and time again. He defies odds; that’s what he does, every moment that he’s alive. I wasn’t kidding when I said that nobody’s ever told this dog that he’s sick. He seriously has no idea.
Don’t think for a second that I’ve managed to talk myself out of any guilt over this. I feel like one of those high school girls who gets knocked up by Bobby Badass just before he leaves town forever to go race tractors. So, she dumps the kid off at her mother’s because she wants to go off to college and make something of herself but the kid thinks his grandmother is his mom, and he has no dad, and he’s never quite right, so he drops out of school to go race tractors. I tell myself that it would only be selfish of me to drag him along like a boy who won’t part with his soiled binky. I’m the one that signed on for this, not him. Truthfully, I have no idea what I’m doing … with any of it. If anything about this makes any sense, trust me, it’s purely accidental. I’m abandoning my dog. There is only one living thing that depends on me for anything and I’m turning my back to him. Funny, I thought writing it all out might make me feel better.
People treat you differently when they find out your leaving the country indefinitely. Some now have reason to make contact where before there was none. You were gonna be a fixture of their life forever and that’s boring. You were not of interest then. Now you are! It’s as if you have an expiration date. You’re a value, a bargain, a real steal. It’s a metaphor for life. We think we have years and years to do the things we want until we learn that we don’t. Come to think of it, we do have expiration dates. We just don’t know them. Although I can usually tell shortly after meeting someone if they’ve expired or not. Then there are those who are careful to keep their distance from you. After all, you’re just a visitor now, a tourist. As if they’re made of such giving and loving material that getting to know you better in what little time you have would only break their fragile hearts. They couldn’t bear it. Or perhaps you’re to be avoided out of a sense of patriotism. You’ve turned you’re back on your homeland so now you can go fuck yourself, amen.
My first experience spending any kind of significant time away from home was summer camp. I was nine or ten the first year I went and I handled it poorly. In fact I bawled like a sissy … in front of everyone. It hit me like an ambulance wreck one evening in an auditorium where all the campers were gathered for some speech to be delivered by some important someone or other. The popular assumption was that I was homesick but looking back I think it would be more accurately described as an anxiety attack. Homesickness seems to suggest that I was simply outside of my boyhood comfort zone. This was more like an intense, overwhelming electric need to be anywhere but in that room, at that time, with those people. It was so incredibly overpowering that I couldn’t even recognize my behavior as embarrassing at the time. No, that came later. With the lights up and the room full, I just … came helplessly unraveled without a shred of self-awareness. Eventually, time passed, the room didn’t swallow me whole and, contrary to my fears at the time, my spine didn’t explode out the back of my body. The hurdle had been cleared and the rest of my stay was without high, psychological drama. Until the following year when it happened again. And I think again the year after that. I don’t know if what I experienced was normal. I don’t remember anyone else publicly humiliating themselves by throwing an annual crying fit at summer camp … and believe me, I’d have welcomed the company.
As I got older I outgrew my neurotic bitch-fit, but not entirely. Well, I outgrew the crying and the flailing of arms and gnashing of teeth anyways. There are still moments well into adulthood, however, when I can remember being afflicted with that same panicky sensation of helplessness, that sense of impending doom far beyond my control or the control of anyone else on the planet for that matter. It’s the kind of anxiety I can only imagine being warranted by a visit from God himself delivering the news that gravity will any minute now just slowly release its hold on you, me and everything else until we’re all floating on an endless and aimless course off the surface of the earth and out into nothingness forever. Or, you know, something equally as frightening as that. I began to realize that these attacks seemed to arise from situations where I found myself almost completely without comfort or crutch. There was more than one occurrence in Army basic training. It took a long time but I also realized that by weathering this emasculating storm and the scenarios that birthed it I developed a greater sense of confidence in my abilities to overcome adversity. I don’t believe that’s something you can give or teach a person and I’m so grateful that my parents didn’t try to protect me from this as a child by not allowing me to attend camp. Either of them could’ve easily said, “No, you’re not going back this year because you’ll only hurt your pussy and we’re tired of hearing about it.”
Weird to think that same homesick brat is traveling to the other side of the world to take a job with an employer he’s never met at a workplace he’s never visited, in a profession he has no experience in. Jesus, I hope this isn’t a scam.