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.
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.
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.
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.