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.
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 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.