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.