That GD Book
"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories."
- Washington Irving
About a decade ago my father off-handedly called me "patrician". I was deeply offended. However why I took offense at this wasn't clear to me at the time.
I may have been offended because I was unclear on what exactly patrician meant. I felt it had to do with the right wing or fascist tendencies. At the time, I had house helpers for the first time in my life. House help, servants, are the rules for the middle class in the Philippines where I lived but I was not yet used to the idea of having people in service under me. Even if the undertones of fascism were stripped from the word patrician, I still feel a certain distaste for the concept -- even with its implications of nobles oblige.
Four things said to me in my life that have stuck with me painfully. The other three are as follows: first, a good college friend inadvertently pointed out how I benefit from white privilege by telling me how happy he felt in Hawaii not being a minority. That made me feel racist in a way that I had not before. Second, a close friend who worked with me in Korea told me that his years spent in Korea after I left were better because I wasn't there, and that I had ruined his time with my negativity. Third, a person I admired for his education and clever writing teased me mercilessly on an email list for being a condescending liberal racist.
So then, this book will be hard to read; not difficult but pretentious. It’ll be self-indulgent and yet I discover as I write this mess down that I am the villain of my own story – an uncomfortable realization: my bildungsroman is a picaresque. … probably patrician too, for what it’s worth.
Much of my childhood is inaccessible to me. I have memories but no narrative, per se. I don’t know where my childhood went except that it feels as though the years of my early years was packed for a move and those boxes got lost in the shipping. I could try to jury-rig some cohesion from the glimpses I have, but it hardly seems worth the effort. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, moved to Long Beach California in the middle of High School, and eventually drifted into Berkeley. I am still astonished that I ended up in Asia. Ridgefield Park in the 1970s had no Asians at all. There was one Filipino boy in my school who we called a “chink”, no Blacks, One Indian family. By identifying as Jewish I was exotic. Or if not exotic, at least overly sensitive about being other. I remember being an asshole and being both bullied and bully in turn when my growth spurt kicked in.
At the end of my second year in high school my family moved from New Jersey to Long Beach, California. I was enrolled in a school 10 miles from my house and I had to take the bus to get to and from school. Just before Christmas break that year I was riding home one day when my life took a turn. It was a significant fork in the road and if I had known what it would bring me to I would have at least thought about it more.
I caught a later bus than usual and one stop past my school two girls about my age got on. The only empty seats were one in front of me and one next to me. These two girls intrigued me. I had never seen “Orientals” so close before and I was very curious. One of the girls, the one sitting next to me, pulled out a newspaper and I was even more curious. What kind of writing was that? It didn't look like Japanese and it didn't look quite like Chinese either. It had circles and squares and was completely new to me. So I asked her (this was also a great chance for me to start a conversation) "what is that?"
She seemed happy that I was talking to her, but also shy and scared. She thought about my question, and conferred with her giggling friend in front of us. After a moment, she turned back to me and replied, "NOOsupaypuh". I smiled. Who wouldn't? "Yes, I know it's a newspaper. What LANGUAGE newspaper is it?"
This question seemed to perplex her and it spurred furious, giggle-free conferencing with her adviser. After a puzzled moment, she turned back to me and with a cute frown and great concentration, she said to me "noo. su. pay. PER!".
I was smitten. And intrigued. And slave to teenage hormones. She and I did our bests to talk for the rest of the ride home, flipping through her dictionary and conferring with her slightly "cuter", sheep-faced friend. (Although marginally better at English, her friend had the glazed look of someone who had recently received a blow to the head.)
Unfortunately, our mutual understanding didn't improve much in the next hour. I couldn't get her to understand many of my questions and I couldn't catch many of her answers. I learned that she and I were about the same age. I learned that she was one year behind me in school and attended an ESL Program at a high school far from mine and that she had to change busses near my school - it was her second day. I learned that her name was something like "Jesus". (It was Chisook, but I couldn't hear the final stop for months to come.)
She got off the bus at the same stop as I and I assumed that since we were neighbors I would meet her again the next day. I didn't. In fact, I didn't catch her again for about 2 weeks-despite the fact that I loitered near the bus stop and rode at varied times in order to run into her again. I finally "bumped into her" after winter break and an hour before my bus. Today the young people call this “stalking”. I found out her bus schedule and from that day forward I made all efforts to ride with her each day to and fro despite the facts that we couldn't talk to each other with any guaranteed success and it added 2 hours a day to my school day.
In order to talk with her easier, I started hunting out the Koreans at my school, sitting with them at lunch and generally making a pest of myself. I got them to start teaching me the basics of the writing and some words. It took a lot of untrained effort but I eventually put together several notebooks of a Korean grammar and lists of words. Even though she learned English incomparably faster than I Korean, and even though we conversed in English, it was well-spent effort.
I made friends with a number of Korean people in school and started attending a popular local Korean-American Church. As my circle of friends widened it led me to new acquaintances and deeper into the KorAm community of SoCal.
Through the church I landed a job managing a fish & chips restaurant and got my first experience working for a crazy man (not my last, however, especially since working in Korea.) I had many friends in at school but the best the best friend and my oldest friend was John. John and I had met a couple of times before I immersed myself, but it was after I had thrown myself into studying Koreans that we became more than nodding acquaintances. I was all but adopted by John and Mike's family. I owe their mother in particular much: she made sure that I finished high school; that I wore shoes; that I ate regular meals. I used to spend all of my free time hanging around her small corner market doing odd jobs and learning all the time. I was eager for the family stability that she provided as I had pretty much left my mother's house at that point and was living a feral existence.
John's Mother had returned to Korea in 1985 and I still tried to visit her monthly in-country. She vetted my wife and many of my former girlfriends and has tried to treat me like a son by interfering in every life-decision I made until I left Korea at the beginning of the millennium.
Chisook and I dated for the rest of my time in high school and had a long distance romance until the summer break before my sophomore year in University, when she came up to live with me in Berkeley. By the end of my junior year of college we were growing apart, and finally, painfully broke up. I needed to get away for a while and it seemed that I needed to learn more of the Korean culture and the world. So I went to Korea with Mike for a few months.
I am not much an advocate for travelling, and I observe that men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in the new places. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
And so, in June 1986 I found myself in Suweon. Summer was hot and sticky as only Korea can be. The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that I didn't work and was able to spend my time napping under trees, or in the bathhouse, or in seedy, "colorful" bars, or sitting around trying to master the tanso, a short bamboo flute that is played vertically. I spent that summer wearing traditional Korean rubber shoes, jeans, and a collection of vaguely offensive t-shirts.
It didn't matter what the t-shirts had on them because the people around me were too innocent to realize that the slogans or images were obscene. One of them was a yellow shirt (UC Berkeley colors) with a line-drawing of one Bear mounting another bear from behind - both bears consenting, of course. Underneath read the slogan "Go Bears, Go!" Everybody thought the bears were wrestling. After a while I didn't wear those t-shirts anymore for the same reason that you don't talk dirty in a daycare center.
The sweet innocence also extended to the ubiquitous "Hello squads" of uniformed school kids. I didn't fall victim to any of today's mean spirited drive-by Hello-pukyoo-ings in which troops of bratty punks attack with feigned familiarity and dirty words gleaned from rented videos. Instead I was assailed with smiles and Hello-hambuggah for a few months and then Hello-tankyoo for the rest of my stay. Hambuggah was easy enough to figure out: it was the only English word these kids had ever heard - just hearing themselves say it carried them off in paroxysms of titters and giggles. However, tankyoo really had me scratching my head. Even old people (I mean OLD people, wizened 180 year olds!) would occasionally come up to me, smile tooth-free gums, take my hand, gaze lovingly at my face and tankyoo me. I figured it was just some misplaced residual 6-25 gratitude. It wasn't. One day leaving the Suweon train station, I took the time to decipher the 5-meter signs running along the wall. The first one said in Korean "Suweon to the world, the world to Suweon." OK, that made sense; the Olympics were coming up and the hype had started. The second sign took me a little longer, but it was worth the effort. This sign was another bit of pre Olympic etiquette education, it explained the tankyooing, and it made me laugh: "When you meet foreigners be sure to say 'thank you'."
The Coming of Winter
I lived at the very heart of old Suweon, at the foot of Paltalsan, or Eight-direction hill. "Eight directions" is meant to imply "all encompassing" but based on the hill's lack of physical stature or panoramic view, I'd credit it with no more than 6 directions. A reconstructed and restored masonry guard wall runs around 4/5th of the old city. It starts at the South Gate at the base of the hill, climbs up and over the crest of the hill to the fort, then trots back down to West Gate, takes a short leap to North Gate, lopes a long way to East Gate and has a good walk back almost to South Gate. (South Gate market had grown to fill that section of wall and so the wall was never rebuilt in that area.) The wall passes royal gardens, royal ponds, royal archery ranges, and is flanked on both sides by a green sward. It is a relaxing and charming walk, with just the right balance of challenge and meander - and all this right through the most populated areas of the city!
I lived on a back street off the main north/south road, Chongro, at the base of Paltal hill. First I had lived at a friend's house nearby, but their grandmother returned from staying with her other sons' families and she needed the room. My friend's father owned an unused building that had been a "study hall" ten years earlier. It was three filthy floors filled with broken desks and old books. There was a bathroom in the back of the first floor, an office at the front, and classrooms in between. I cleaned out the junk in the office and put a cot in there. I had a coal stove that I was scared of, a hot plate, and no hot water. The coming of winter was the main reason I returned to the U.S.
The Local Fare
Paltal Hill is covered with trees and rocks and the yellow scars of soil erosion so common to Korean hillsides. None of the tress are older than 1970: like so many hills in Korea, it was thoroughly denuded during the war and its aftermath; the topsoil has been allowed to flow each summer into the city sewers and streams below. There are several springs on the hill but the nearest stream is at the base, beyond and parallel to Chongro. On the west bank of this stream and community rubbish-tip people grew tainted vegetables in flyblown plots demarcated by twisted coat hangers, rusted umbrella ribs, and plastic twine. On the east side were a Buddhist temple and the northernmost stalls from the South Gate Market.
Between the stream and the main road was a fried chicken shop that is of absolutely no literary concern to this essay, but I liked it, so here it is anyway. They cooked the chickens, sliced through once and deep-fried in one piece in a paraffin-fired fryer. It's hard to find chicken that good these days. Two good-sized birds, 2 bottles of coke, and a bottle of beer was 5,000 won. That was a lot of money to me so chicken was a big deal, real special occasion food.
One shop that I liked to walk by was a pet shop with a blasphemous tableau playing out in the cages in front of the door. One large cage had a monkey and an upright T of wood for the damned ape to play on. When people passed, it would have one arm crooked over the cross bar of the T, hanging like the corpse on a simian crucifix. Generally the other hand would be scratching privately. A plaque handwritten at the bottom of the cage said that the monkey was named Hyoja, but I doubt that many people found that name as humorous as the owner intended. I haven't seen any monkeys in Korea for years now, but it used to be that every pet store had one chained or caged outside. I can only assume that their furious public masturbation has caused them to lose popularity. I liked to watch that little feces flinger, from a distance of course, because he and I had much in common: people liked to watch us both and we were both on display for local entertainment 18 hours out of any day. If I stood still and examined something on the street, on a sign, in a store, people would gather around me to point, and STARE. They also talked as if I weren't there. "Look how hairy/fat/tall he is!" "What do you think he eats?" "He looks like a person doesn't he?" "Do you think he can read that sign he's looking at?" There was no intention to be rude but it drove me crazy.
Another of the stalls, in this case a pushcart, was run by an elderly refugee from Shandong China who had come to Korea as part of the diaspora fleeing Mao. This seller of steamed dumplings was egg-shaped and I cannot recall ever seeing him dress in anything other than a gray undershirt, canvas ducks, and canvas shoes. His head was shaved, but it always seemed to have a half-week of gray stubble - ditto his chops. When I could, I would go over there to buy dumplings and chat. I was lonely: I still didn't speak much Korean (My Mandarin was much better) and no one in Suweon seemed to have any English beyond the aforementioned "tankyoo" and "Hello, Mr. Monkey." Despite my efforts he wasn't the easiest guy to run into. He had an interesting work ethic and he usually was done for the day before noon. He only made 400 large dumplings and maybe 700 small. When he sold out he would go home. He said he had found the perfect balance between poverty and work.
I ended up spending a lot of my time with old people that Summer and Fall. I sincerely recommend gaffers as language resources, partners, and informants. They often have little better to do. They are often lonely and eager for company. They can have interesting stories at times. They are significantly more patient than those younger. And, most importantly, for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of bottles of soju or makoli, you can have their undivided attention for the rest of the day.
The senior citizen rec center near my house in Suweon was little more than a single unfurnished room with a heated floor and a few donated blankets. The WC was accessible only from I the outside and was no more than a closet with a wide hole in the floor and a spigot on the wall. People would show up there early in the morning, some dropped off by their children on the way to work. I think few came because they liked it - I think it was because they had no other place to go. Being dropped off there was the Suweon equivalent of being put on an ice floe. If you are going to be spending any time in Korea it would be a mitzvah to visit your local old people's rec center. Do what I did to learn Korean: spend your free time kibitzing their Chang-gi chess games, share your canned peaches and feed them your pocket money in the guise of learning to play "Go-Stop".
My Favorite Person
My favorite person was a guy who lived next door to me. He was originally from Pusan, had fought for the Japanese in Manchuria, and had fought against the communists in the 1950s. He didn't ever seem to go to the rec center. He said he didn't like the people there, but I got the feeling he was banned. He was a funny guy, he said the people who spent their days at the rec center were just waiting to die and he wasn't going to die from any old people diseases. He had already outlived most of his family. And, except for a younger brother in the north who may have still lived, he was alone. At the time, he was staying with his daughter's brother-in-law's son. Everyone else was dead.
He was over six feet tall and had trouble walking due to a stroke he had suffered. He had exactly 3 teeth. Two non-contiguous teeth on top (an incisor and a canine) and a molar on the bottom. He didn't have the money to get dentures made up and he didn't really need any. He got most of his calories from alcohol and rice gruel. He used to bang on my door with his cane every morning before the sun was fully up, with something odd to show me. One day he showed me how to whistle with a willow leaf, another day a gall on a branch, one morning a picture of his son who died of hunger in the 60's, once his elementary school diploma in Japanese. One cold morning I woke to find the coal stove burning, and him sitting on the corner of my cot with a bag of steamed corn on the cob in his hand. I started laughing - I couldn't help it. As I was getting dressed I asked him point blank how he ate corn off the cob without teeth. He smiled and picked up a cob and started eating it, with one tooth, one kernel at a time.
I got most of my first cultural education from Grandpa next-door, too. One day I needed salt for potatoes I had boiled on my hotplate. I went next-door and asked if they had any. The old man heard me talking to his daughter's husband's brother's son's wife and yelled for me to wait. I stood there at the door while he got dressed and came to the door. When he got to the door he whacked he in the head with his cane! No warning and no explanation, just a smile and then WHACK! Then he turned around and went back to his room chuckling. It wasn't until later that evening that a friend explained to me that you are supposed to beat kids who come to the door to borrow salt. Sending a child next door with a winnowing basket to borrow salt (and get thrashed) is the traditional punishment for bedwetting. Grandpa knew that I didn't know that, but he was not one to miss the opportunity to conk a bratty kid like me in the head with his cane.
On the north side of my house was a little mom and pop store that mom and pop and 2 young sons (5 and 9) lived in. there was no room to stand and I could never figure out how they slept - most likely stacked like cord wood. They sold me mainly popsicles and beer. The shop was a nice place to meet in the evening and have a drink or some fruit, and they had a picnic table with a Coca-Cola umbrella out front for that purpose. There were 30 or so stacking chairs as well, and as the sun moved to the west each day the number of chairs in the stack would decrease and the chairs would be co-opted around the neighborhood for private use. It was the older son's job to run around the neighborhood and bring them all back each evening. When he finished he would sit at that table and do his homework with an oil lamp and the ambient light of the nearby doorways.
The relative levels of wealth were certainly lower then than today. Granted it wasn't that bad in Seoul but I lived in Suweon. One friend invited me over to see his family's refrigerator, a rare and precious estate, and no one I knew had a color TV -- if they had a TV at all. However, the family who lived in front of me were fairly well off and they had a car. They also had a live-in driver who opened the doors and wore white cotton gloves and polished the paint off the car. Every morning he would walk a kilometer and a half to get the car and drive it back from its parking place to directly in front of the master's front gate. Then he would get out and walk up to the front door of the house and knock on the door. When the boss came out the driver would bow and take the proffered attache case and lead his employer the few steps back to the car. On rainy days he carried an open umbrella over his boss's head. After walking around the car to open and close the door he'd get in and drive that Hyundai Pony to his master's eyeglass shop 500 meters away. Then that driver would go park the car until 6:00 p.m. and the whole megillah would be reversed.
I was not that rich, or, surprisingly, that lazy. Therefore I availed myself of shanks's mare when traversing the downtown and buses when I had to go out to the train station or the surrounding country. The buses had all the charm they have now, but with no air conditioning, smaller seats and 20 times the passengers. I saw young women faint standing and be held upright by the press of bodies every time I rode. Every 4th passenger was an auntie going to or coming from market with approximately 30 kilos of semi-preserved fish and several cubic meters of vegetable products. Another quarter of the passengers were farmers -- farmers from their red, creased necks, to their cuffs rolled to bony knees, to their muddy, green wellies. They always seemed to be on their way back from drinking makoli and eating garlic with their buddies, and they rode asleep, breathing rhythmically through their mouths.
The lack of air conditioning and the farm products - not to mention farmers - meant the windows were open, OPEN. To say dust flew in would be wrong; nothing this heavy and dense could be called "dust". It would be more accurate to say that ground asphalt flew in. During the rainy season it was common for people to walk through the pouring rain under homemade umbrellas rather than brave the buses. The drivers were apparently resentful of other vehicles sharing the roads, so each ride was a barreling adventure and a religious experience.
This is not all to say that the buses were unbearable; some things were better than now. I paid just pennies to ride it. Someone would always offer to hold my bag on his or her lap and I could trust him or her to return it when I got off. In fact, although I was sure to be separated from my belongings for most of the ride, it was nigh impossible to leave belongings on the bus - someone would be sure to remind me and on occasion hunt me down and come to my house to deliver them if forgotten. Seats were yielded to the elderly with no resentment. The atmosphere was friendly and jovial and terrifyingly uncomfortable: Imagine a sauna in which you were fully dressed and standing with 200 of your closest friends and family and you all have been drinking -- now imagine that sauna hurtling through space with asteroids coming in the windows.
But, I repeat this is not all to say that the buses were unbearable; some things were better than now. Each bus had its own Virgil to guide us and lead us from error, its Beatrice to inspire us to divine, comedic heights: the bus agashi. Can any of us think back on these uniformed amazon warriors of tokens and coins, without feeling that with their passing something precious is gone from the earth?
Oh, to be a young man in a land of bus agashis again! I don't remember any individuals, but as a group I remember them all fondly. Like R. Crumb heroines, they were the meaty butt of much lascivious humor and objects of theoretically obtainable desires despite muscular shoulders, strong legs, and powerful hams. These girls were no shrinking violets, they couldn't be. Forcing themselves back and forth through the press of bodies would wilt most flowers. No, these young women were hearty coarse blossoms like thistle and briar rose. Their official job was simple enough; they collected the 50 won fares, announced the stops, and opened the door for people to get off. By doing these jobs they left the drivers free to drive recklessly, and improve the surly attitudes they are so good at. Their unofficial job, the one they did for their own enjoyment, was chatting with the passengers pressed cheek to cheek around them. The earthy humor of these girls made each cross-town journey a bawdy joy.
50 won doesn't seem like much today and it wasn't that much then but I was on a budget. 20 won bought a popsicle, 75 won was the price of one of those little yogurt drinks, 100 was a bad pack of cigarettes, 500 was a pack of good cigarettes, and 700 won was a bowl of jajangmyun or the base taxi fare. I was on a budget, living on a hotplate, a lot of fruit, a lot of fasting, and more drinking than was good for me. I had 10,000 won a week to live on and generally that was enough. I even had enough to buy a 3,000 won pair of dress slacks at the 5-day market in Pyeongtaek. I don't know if those markets still exist. They were called 5-day markets because they happened every 5 days. They were timed so that peddlers had time to walk from market to market up the peninsula. Many old timers can still remember the order of the towns that held markets. Each trip to the market was a unique and enjoyable discovery. You could buy anything there: rice, ginseng, monkeys, dogs, clothes, new bicycles, and used books.
The bus Agashis were not the only ones shoving their ways through the boiling mass of sweating bodies on and off the bus. The Ajumas, then and now, were terrible machines of destruction. Whether an older model clad in motley and burdened with cloth wrapped Tupperware packages leaking brine, or a newer model with a boneless papoose strapped to her back and tubs of vegetables balanced on her head, these were tanks cutting swathes of destruction and carnage through any queue. If some well-intentioned person ever tells you that Korean women are demure, docile, delicate creatures, laugh in his face. These women are probably, kilo for kilo, the toughest fighting force on earth -- a single Ajuma could reduce a squad of Gurkhas to mewling kits without dropping her baskets or waking the babe on her back. When a bus pulled up and opened its doors the waiting women would descend en mass to grapple their way to the front of the surging crowd -elbows swinging, teeth bared - to secure their places as bus riding worthies.
These fighting fireplugs terrified me, for I had had an "encounter". Once while de-boarding a bus at South Gate I was descending directly behind a woman of a certain age, who, of course, had a basket on her head, balanced and held there by her hands and the neck muscles of a professional wrestler. Because her hands were occupied with this feat of brutish power her skirt hem trailed on the treads of the steep bus stairs. And, because my brain was occupied by the task of figuring out what the sign above the driver had said and whether the #25-4b bus would be the same as the #25-3, I stepped on her hem. The little matter of an additional 95 kilos on her dress was nothing any self-respecting titan would note, so why should that slow down an ajuma? Of course it wouldn't. And, of course no mere skirt could deny either the unstoppable force or the immovable mass. Her skirt followed the laws of physics to whatever Valhalla is set aside for the garb of valkyries and man-made fibers.
The ajuma swung around like an atlas with a basket of kimchi-fixings, and glared at me. Her priorities were clear: revenge before modesty. Dressed below in a gray slip alone, she fixed me as the culprit and, without covering herself or putting down her basket, started a haranguing blast of invective that etched my shadow into the scorched bricks of the wall behind me and drove a man's hat through a lamppost. Her language would have shamed a syphilitic goat fancier and made a division of French Foreign Legionnaires flee. As luck would have it, the content went past me with only minimal damage inflicted: I couldn't catch more than a few words - family, head-injury, dog, moron. But from the horror in the faces of the few people still standing her thoughts were clear. I stood, barely able to remain continent. All I could do was yammer, stammer, stutter (in English): "I'm sorry, I'msorry. IMSORRY!" I fled and have tried to put it behind me but I am certain that her firestorm of profanity has been burned into the gestalt of Suweon. Even now some people must reckon time as being 12 years, 3 months, 10 days, 1 hour, and 48 minutes since Haj Ali farted in the marketplace.
Despite the laid back, semi-rural nature of life in Suweon, at times I needed to get away from the sound of Korean, screaming fishwives, and staring crowds. At these times the bus was my conveyance to sanity. From North Gate I could take the 75 bus to a small village near a reservoir and the miniscule hamlet beyond. Suweon has many lovely reservoirs, lakes and ponds nearby and the name Suweon means "Source of Water". A several occasions I made arrangements to meet some friends (two girls and a guy - go figure) near the small store where the pavement and bus both stopped before their return to the town. On one summer morning my friends stood me up and I waited for several hours for them to come before I took off over paddy and hill, through forest and ford, with the fried chicken, fruit, and 6 liters of makoli I had brought in preparation. In reality, by that point it was 4 liters of booze only, as I had nothing better to do during my wait but drink and share with the local kids who loved anyone who would give them watermelon and chicken. (It had not been anyone's fault that I was stood up; during the late summer the local government had restricted access to the areas near drinking water supplies to only the farmers who lived in those remote villages. The bus drivers had strict rules to not take anyone past the checkpoints that did not belong, but because the driver of my bus assumed I was a soldier, he thought I was on military business and he let me through.)
The weather was fantastic: sunny and hot, but not humid. There were sun showers throughout the day but the air was not hazy and the rain was welcome. The pace was my own and I followed a road of water polished stones and yellow clay up and out the other side of the valley. I saw maybe three farmers in their muddy fields, but once I got out of the valley I saw no other people for the rest of the day. Whenever the plastic jugs of makoli got too heavy I would stop, have a drink and look around. When I finished a jug I would stamp the soft plastic flat and roll it up and put it in my bag; this area was very clean thanks to the government's effort to protect the water supply and the no picnickers policy.
For some reason good sense deserted me, perhaps from the altitude. I decided to go back but first I had to drink the last liter. I had carried it up Kilimanjaro - I'd be damned if I'd carry it down. So I walked a little further until I saw something inviting: 50 meters off, through the long shadows of the trees I saw a large flat rock warming in the late afternoon sun. When I got near I saw that it was 2.5 meters from the base to the flat basking surface and it was jutting over steep slopes on almost three faces. I climbed up and somehow fell asleep lying in the sun.
When I woke up it was dark. The summer overcast haze had moved in and there were no stars, no moon, no light from Seoul reflected off the clouds. I had no watch but it would have made little difference; there was not enough light to see one anyway. I didn't know which way the road was and I didn't know where the edge of the rock was. I was afraid to roll over to empty my makoli storage facility, lest I end up rolling into space and the valley floor. I spent the next lifetime of a night doing damage to my kidneys and spooking myself with the song of the peepers and other diverse wildlife screaming a chorus of "kill-david kill david kill david".
Even though I took occasional forays to other towns and the countryside, I spent most of my time in Suweon surrounded by the ancient walls. Suweon had everything I needed and I found enough new experience to keep me interested and involved in the life around me. I found it surprisingly easy to fall into the rhythms of my neighborhood and the patterns of daily life. The life outside my door flooded up under my doors, lifted me up and carried me out on the daily morning tides to the wide world beyond. The currents took me where they would, and like Max, each night the ebb and flow would bring me back from Where the Wild Things Are, to the safety of my room.
I could never be sure where the caprice and fancy of each morning's currents would carry me, but many mornings the waters would bring me at first light to the trailhead leading up Ararat to one of Paltal's many springs. The walk up the hill to the spring each morning was neither quiet nor solitary. The birds made enough noise for any three market scenes and they were a welcome accompaniment. Below and seemingly unreachably distant I could also catch the refrain of the town waking up. Not all the accompaniment was musical either, for there was always a steady caravan of jug toting pilgrims earnestly heading towards the font, there to join the line of other jogging-suit supplicants waiting to bring the mountaintop messages of fresh air, exercise, and spring water to the masses below.
Clean living was not the only god prayed to on the way to water. There were also small shrines near most of the springs, carved from the living rock and adorned with candle stubs and the statues of interventionist Buddhist saints. Often there would be offerings of rice cake in foil pans sitting in front of the statues. It is a testament to Nature's respect for religion that foraging animals never disturbed the rice cake. It was also a testament to the utterly unpalatable nature of glutinous rice cake.
After soaking the early morning heat out of my head at the spring I could go up the hill or down. Up was always nice. There was a girdling access road part way up and a small building with a dooryard patio to rest in and buy overpriced snacks. There was also an outdoor ping-pong table where players standing meters back from where I would have stood returned complicated semiprofessional body-twisting serves. Next to that was a pigeon coop tower honoring something or other. One wrong sneeze could lift the birds into a panicked whitewashing storm.
The water from the hillside springs was cold enough to make my teeth ache and when I had a dipper of water spilled over my head I was fully awake and braced for the day. That water was luckily as good as coffee; in Suweon coffee was unavailable before ten and as unappealing as rice cake. There were two or three coffee shops, rather than tabangs or tearooms, that sold "nut coffee" near South Gate, but there were factors to consider before going to any of them. First, in no particular order, they rarely had waitresses. Second, they were three times more expensive than tabangs. Third, one was owned by a friend of my friend's mother, which meant in that small town atmosphere that anything I said or did there could be noted for later use against me. Fourth, the coffee served tended to be a colorless, odorless, inert liquid. Fifth, they gave me the hairy eyeball if I stayed three hours dawdling with letters home over a single cuppa.
Tabangs are altogether better places. A tabang in all but the tiniest of towns is invariably in a basement, thus they tend to be a sanctuary: lovely, dark, and deep; musty-dusty dim hidey-holes with garish water-stained wallpaper, goldfish, and bevy of odalisques. As much as a tabang was a temporary refuge for me, it was a dubious permanent refuge for the waitresses. These women were mostly in their late 20s and 30s and they were in these subterranean odas reforming from more lewd economic lives lived in bars and barbershops. Usually there would be a "madam", the owner-operator who was something of a cross between a hostess, den mother, procurer, and protector. More often than not, the madam, her girls, and perhaps the madam's husband lived in a back room and when I came in too early in the morning I would occasionally catch the girls sitting around in states of unattractive undress. It may be true that clothes make the man, but make-up makes the tabang girl.
The madam made sure the balance was maintained between the waitresses and the patrons. The waitresses fussed over the steady stream of male customers and chatted, flirted, and teased the customers into buying more coffee. On an average day these women might drink 30 cups of tabang coffee. Witches' brew might be a better name than coffee; the standard recipe was to boil one or two jars of instant coffee in a small saucepan of water, and then to reduce the resulting liquor into a few cups of coffee extract syrup. This extract was used for the next few days with boiling water added as needed to build each customer's beverage. I had also heard from several sources that in slightly early times, cigarette butts had also been added to the extract to stretch the coffee. When the coffee was given to the customer the waitress would sit down close to him and stir in the sugar and non-organic creamer. If there were no other patrons waiting she would feign interest until he offered her a cup. She would get it, tell the madam at the counter, return to the seat, drink the scalding goo in one quick head toss, thank the big spender and get up to go.
The people who worked in these places tempered the mercenary nature of the business. My first morning in Korea was spent looking for coffee. (It surprises me on reflection, how much of the past 12 years has been spent looking for good coffee.) A kyopo friend who flew in from LA with me and I, jointly not knowing any better, set out at 7:00 a.m. looking for a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts type store to get some morning coffee. We finally found an open place - open in the sense that the door wasn't locked. The madam was awake but clearly not open for business. We started to leave but she told us to stay and she made us coffee. She also gave us each a fried egg on a coffee cup saucer, for no other reason than it was morning. In many tabangs "morning coffee" means coffee with a raw egg cracked into it, so we were triply lucky: lucky for the coffee, lucky for the eggs, and lucky the eggs were cooked.
Tabangs in the country have a somewhat deserved bad reputation and this reputation is not just due to the coffee: in the deep countryside tabangs act as out-call brothels. They sell "tickets", which represent a certain amount of time with the girl. These tickets can be used for straight sex or just as a way to get an escort with whom to go drinking and dancing. These tickets do not often happen in cities or even in medium sized towns, but in small towns it is a good thing to remember. Certainly that bit of knowledge about tabangs would have done me some small good. Once that summer I went down to Hongsung where some friends had families and for a couple of days I was entirely on my own with no one around who could understand my pidgin Korean or translate normal Korean into my pathetic vocabulary. I stayed at an inn that had a very friendly proprietor who wanted nothing more than to please his guests. Beware people like that.
On the first evening there I got in late and wanted some coffee to drink while writing a letter. It was around 10:00 and so I had small hope of finding an open shop, but I figured if there was an open shop nearby the innkeeper would know. So I went to his window and asked with great feeling and grand gestures "excuse me, kind sir. I am sorry to disturb you and you lovely family, but might I trouble you to direct me to a local purveyor of caffinated beverages who is in the habit of closing his establishment later than the norm?" Or in other words, I pantomimed drinking coffee and I said "nosebleed, nosebleed, where where where?" Finally after a bit a little Chuck Jones light bulb switched on over his head and he guessed I was trying to say /k'uhp'ee/, not /k'ohpee/. "Oooh! You want COFFEE!" Such a relief, "Yes, that's what I've been saying, 'nosebleed'." He gestured for me to go up to my room, or at least to get out of the foyer, with the universal sweeping gesture. And, he somehow made me understand "10 minutes, I'll have it sent up." In just a few minutes there was a knock and a woman's voice called softly "coffee". I opened the door and motioned her in. She seemed surprised to see a foreigner but she shrugged and asked me what I think was "did you order coffee?" I nodded and said "Coffee? Yes. Yes, Coffee". She shrugged a second time and start unbuttoning her blouse. I was fairly sure this was not what I had ordered. "No, stop! Coffee, COFFEE!" She seemed unfazed, "Yes, coffee." And she continued to unbutton.
I ran down and got that oh-so-helpful old guy to come up and help me get her to leave. In the end it cost me 5,000 won, the price of a "small" ticket, to convince her that I really did want something to drink that late in the evening. The owner and the girl refused to believe that I didn't want her even after I had paid. I never got my coffee and both the owner and his wife looked at me funny for the rest of my stay.
A Bathhouse Respite
Who could know where the waters of each day would bring me? In the hottest days of summer one island of respite was a bathhouse halfway to South Gate and west of the main road up some alleys. The bathhouse was a sybaritic luxury heretofore unimagined. Oh, once, months before I had been to a public bath in Japan, but that experience, my first, was shrouded in the embarrassment and shame of being naked in front of women. When my friends and I first entered the changing area we were startled to discover an old woman manning the desk handing out towels and sundries. Stoically we resolved that if no one else was disturbed by her presence, then neither were we. We quickly disrobed and moved into the bathing area. After relaxing in the warm tub the woman's existence at the desk no longer mattered so much and we returned to the changing area. My towel was too wet. I figured that working here the grandmother at the desk had seen what I had many thousands of times over and I unthinkingly approached the front desk to get a replacement towel. The woman was gone and in her place was a young girl of about 14. As I stammered my request, that pimply teen schoolgirl handed me the towel and returned her attention to the portable TV on the counter. I tell you all, I shriveled and now, years later my male ego still winces at the memory of that girl's utter and entire disinterest.
But as is so often true, Korea was different! My Suweon bathhouse was small, but always clean and usually crowded. Its name was "Shin-Shin-tang" and since the Chinese characters were not provided, the name was ambiguous but it probably meant "New-New bath". That's not a bad name for a bathhouse. The layout and drill for most small public baths is the same: get a ticket from the watcher-in-the-box and enter the door on the left. Give the ticket to the underpants-clad-shoe-shining-laundry-folding-back-washing-floor-mopper and get a locker key. In front of the door in the locker area is a wooden deck which invariably has a nail clipper and lighter tied to it by an elastic cord. One feature of Shin-Shin was the fact that there was usually someone playing Chang-gi on the deck with the effeminate barber.
It was not surprising that they did good business in the cooler months: many of the homes nearby didn't have indoor plumbing for showering, let alone hot water. However, Shin-Shin did well in summer too. The place had the friendly atmosphere that only neighborhood establishments can have; they clearly cared about their customers. The hottest part of summer is often a slow period for bathhouses as most people choose to wash at home with cold water, but Shin-Shin got people to come in by making their business irresistible. The sauna was no more than a wooden two-man closet but it was always on and always HOT. The bath tanks were tiny but the water was kept clean and changed quickly; the hot water tank could have been used to scald the bristles off of a hog, and each morning and early afternoon a giant cake of ice was purchased and dropped into the cold bath. Three circuits of hot bath, cold bath, sauna left me with jellied knees and a chipmunk's heart rate. There was no rest area to recover in but I was always free to lay out on the tiles with a rolled towel or inverted bucket for a pillow.
One of my main reasons for loving this bathhouse had little to do with the building and more to do with its plumbing: it had a western style sit-on throne. Sure, there was no light in the W.C. other than what came through the frosted glass on the door. Sure, there was often no paper other than neatly torn and arranged squares of newsprint that needed to be vigorously softened before use; and sure, the only way to keep the door from being opened was to do your business leaning forward to hold tightly to the door handle. But, I didn't have to squat to use it and I felt better for that.
Facilities in Korea at the time varied from barbaric to primitive. A trip to relieve the bowels always required bringing a pack of tissues and I often felt that a stout cudgel would be useful to beat back the rats which although invisible I was sure were about to go after my dangly bits. Even when I was assured the restroom would be sans rodentia, squatting over the "modern" porcelain facilities was bad enough. I was never sure I was "aiming" correctly and I couldn't keep my balance long enough to fine-tune the procedure. Each intestinal evacuation was a gymnastic feat of bent knees, flailing arms, and cramping thighs. And through it all I had to make sure that no part of my raiment brushed the floor, as it was painfully clear to the eye and nose that I was not the only person in Suweon who had difficulties with "aim".
When I recovered from a bath (or a bathroom), there were other things to do, get a meal, see a bad movie, go up the mountain, go for a walk in the market. If I wanted I could always go play Ping-Pong. A friend's uncle owned the Ping-Pong parlor. It's not that the uncle would let me play for free; he wouldn't. He didn't. He didn't like Americans in general or me in particular. The girl who worked there and her friends liked me though. They let me in and volleyed with me with me for hours, feeding me baby shots.
Any one of those young charmers could have easily humiliated me, but I can't recall ever being beaten by any of them. I later learned that two of the girls were interested in me, but at the time I just thought I was a table tennis natural. Hindsight can be frustrating at times; I should have taken advantage of the opportunity to improve my Ping-Pong or romantic skills, but instead I spent my time there believing that there was no more for me to learn on either front. When we sat at the low vinyl benches along the walls I was dying to date one of the three girls, but I assumed they were unattainable, and so through my own inaction, in the end they were. A young man is an interesting admixture of arrogance and self-doubt.
My life in Suweon was compartmentalized, different friends and acquaintances for different activities: the old guy next door for life lessons and culture, partners for ping pong, pals for drinking, and people for saying hello to like the flower lady at south gate. I made a point of buying flowers from her even though I had no one to give them to and no place to put them. I often just gave them to passerbys who caught my eye or surprised bus agashis.
Everywhere was something to do and something to grab my attention. And most things ended in bars. Although most nights I was home by seven and in the land of Nod by ten, in Korea I found myself drinking much more often than I ever had in the States. So many activities in Suweon seemed to me to involve drinking -- and never solitary drinking. If I walked into a bar of any description in Suweon, I was immediately pounced upon by the adult squads of the Hello Brigade and forced to surrender to sociability or beat a retreat.
Even when I sat in restaurant alone with a notebook it was not uncommon for someone to invade my table and fire salvos of soju toasts at me. Often the first shot fired off was only the first of a barrage, with the occupying forces at my table expanding to include everyone from my first uninvited guest's table (and sometimes even the establishment's owner.) Sometimes I ended up stuck with the tab, a casualty of the soju wars; but nine times out of ten I was treated as an unintentional ward of the state. On more then one occasion I was captured for further interrogation and dragged off kicking and screaming to the "second", as the inevitably ensuing stop at a bar is called. Thank god the torture of Karaoke had not yet made it to the peninsula!
Many of these "second" bars were entirely forgettable, that is to say I can't remember them, or wish I couldn't. Most were fairly primitive by today's neon and disco-ball standards and none of them matched the wood paneled splendor of hofs in Seoul now. Nonetheless, some had earnest charm that I have not found in Korea for years.
One of the charming ones was a traditional home near South Gate, just south of the start of the wall climbing Paltal hill. The thatching on the low roof was intact, but the inside walls facing the central courtyard had been torn out making an atrium of a sort. The Koreo-Roman motif was followed up with plastic grape bunches, vines, and leaves stapled to the walls and pillars, interspersed with dried gourds and woven baskets. The tables in the courtyard were long unpainted wooden benches that were homemade, wobbly, and rough and had linoleum flooring fixed to their tops to protect them from the weather, and no doubt, the drinkers.
The tables in the courtyard were open to the stars and rain, and Korea still had stars in '86. Even in downtown Suweon, just south of the capital of the country, the light pollution wasn't bad enough to hide the Milky Way or the occasional shooting star. The stars encouraged bonhomie, song, and tabletop chopstick percussion. This particular establishment served makoli in leaky plastic bottles, soybean fritters, and the kimchee-heavy side dishes that one comes to expect in such an atmosphere.
The first time I went there with some friends I drank with the same apparent abandon as my cohorts, but in my heart I was dreading the inevitable trip to the restroom. In an old house like that it was likely that the restroom was nothing more than a gloomy cobwebby shack in back with two parallel planks spaced over a black pit of corruption and pestilence, a yellowed 40 watt bulb eerily swaying overhead deepening the shadows. It was with great loathing and trepidation that I finally made the makoli enforced journey step by dreadful step to the bathroom.
But imagine this: expecting a hell, I entered a paradise. Walls of gleaming white enamel tiles reflected the snowy glistening porcelain sink. The black and white checkerboard of wide clean tile floor lead my gaze to the other side of the room to where on the wall, framed by pristine grout, hung that icon of western civilization, an American Standard urinal. Could a coffee lover ask for more?
I stood gape jawed in the doorframe, unable to believe what I saw. If one discounted the stadium style troughs in train stations or the odd perforated coffee-can nailed to a wall, I had not seen a urinal of any sort my entire time in Korea. Yet here one undeniably was, in the heart of darkest Suweon. I stepped into splendid light of the room and step by step made my way inexorably across to stand in worship directly before that glorious target of male micturition. Slowly I unbuttoned my jeans, drawing the moment out, until at last the anticipation and makoli became too much for me and could stand it no longer: I let loose my offering in a worthy stream. Ah, the joy of it, the rapture!
Oh, the horror! The requisite chrome pipes were not attached underneath. Used makoli splattered down through the short drain, down onto my sandals, down onto the tile, down across the floor, and down into the geographically centrally placed drain. This experience turned out to be mildly prophetic of much of my time in Korea: things that have looked familiar were very rarely what they appeared to be and even less likely to be what I assumed them to be. And whenever I find myself having trouble it is usually my own mistaken assumptions that have me pissing on my own feet.
Hot Dirty Thankless Work
My feet and alcohol had caused me problems before. Shortly after I first came to Korea, after I had had enough time to trick myself into believing I had acclimated myself to Suweon, John and Mike flew in from the States. The three of us had gone to high school together and had remained close friends through university; we remain today what Koreans call "testicle buddies", or long time good friends. A few nights after he arrived, as soon as he was caught up with family and childhood friends we went out to talk and enjoy the charms of Dame Soju. We made our way back home at the unbelievably late hour of 11:00 p.m. and we were drunk - not falling down plastered, but numb.
Then as now, Korean streets and sidewalks were most often a patchwork of disrepair and avoidance. Some sections were mud-bottomed tiger traps and others were evenly spaced and neatly laid out quilts of toe-catching colored brick. We walked hand in hand as per the Korean custom of close male buddies and we were happy despite our drunken self-consciousness. Not at all far from his family home, on a side street behind the post office, I misstepped on a split paving stone. (This never would have happened to me in the US and it doesn't happen to me in Korea now; but at that time I didn't have the right instincts for walking Korean roadsides on inebriated autopilot yet.) I stumbled and my foot hurt, but we were holding hands so I didn't fall. My foot seemed OK after a moment and we made it home without much, if any, limping on my part.
The next morning and for the next several days I was unable to walk. The local surgeon said that nothing was broken but that the connective tissue in my foot was now connective in name only. For two or three weeks after that I was only able to get around by hobbling along with a baseball bat doing double duty as a cane. The doctor said he was surprised that I had made it home and went to sleep after such a painful injury. He said I must have been anaesthetized at the time of the accident.
I didn't find that quip quite as funny as everybody else and I was angry and disappointed that this had come along to ruin my vacation. Being an invalid meant that I missed an opportunity to go to Sorak, a chance to go to Halla, and even a free seat on a tour to Ulleung-do.
In Korea fun has rarely come to me from predictable quarters; good came of this too. The Surgery had a nurse who lived downstairs to answer the front bell in case of after hour emergencies. (The doctor and his wife lived upstairs on the fifth floor and their sons lived in an apartment in Seoul.) She and I were close in age and there were complementary aspects to our personalities. I have no idea what she saw in me but I enjoyed my time with her. She was friendly and more intelligent than I had first guessed from the way the doctor, his wife, and the housekeeper treated her.
She was taller than most girls in Suweon and had long hair. Her uniform dress, which was all I ever saw her in during daylight hours, was baby blue, firmly starched, and probably as punishing as an 18th century hoop skirt. The thick, firm square panel in front flattened and removed anything but a hint at bounty and fullness, while the constrictive waist squeezed and bound round in a tiny diameter, returning clues to gender and calling the eyes to the full, voluptuous flare of her hips. Young women in Korea in 1986 were not the pitifully starved Calvin Klein waifs they are today - which means that dress was probably even more uncomfortable than it looked.
She had a funny name. Her family name, Han, is common enough, but her first name, "A-Reum", is a pure Korean word (not Sino-Korean like most names). Taken together her name means "an armful", "a full load", or "a hug's worth". She was.
She was a sweet girl with a good sense of humor and I hope she is happy today. Her face was prettier than her name, but I'm sure most people never noticed. Her face was hard to focus on because of the terrible distraction her glasses caused. She had thick, thick nearly opaque discs of industrial quality quartz in her frames. I am sure that she couldn't see a single thing with them off and I don't see how any one could see anything with them on. I often wondered what the patients of the surgery thought when she assisted the doctor. The majority of the few patients that came in seemed to be women, so perhaps they appreciated the anonymity provided by a blind nurse, but I think I would have been terrified to undergo any operation, even an ingrown toenail removal, with those glasses assisting.
She used to talk to me in baby talk and she had, you know, like a strong Suweon accent, OK? A Suweon accent, Ok? is like indistinguishable, you know? from standard Korean. But, you know, once you can recognize one, OK? it's as unbearably irritating as someone who talks like this, right? I really couldn't tell you how we communicated; her English was of the "hello-hambuggah" variety, and my Korean still wasn't good enough to order coffee. Somehow we managed. In some ways it was the perfect male-female relationship; we could always hear what we wanted to hear and always say what we felt like - we could be honest and suffer no consequences, no repercussions. Perhaps this relationship was the Platonic Ideal upon which all other relationships are based.
Well, maybe platonic is a misleading adjective. We did on occasion sneak her out after hours (the doctor's wife frowned on Miss Han having any sort of social life) and go up the hill to spoon under the trees. It was there and then that I learned that there is no greater defender of chastity and virtue than the combination of curfew and hook-and-eye underwear. I also learned that the framistan connects to the mainspring and that the buckle can snap up and put an eye out if you unclasp the straps wrong.
Fashion has changed. Then girls had no knees. Skirts came to mid-shin and pants were rare. I can't quite remember the feet, but I think that most young women were wearing "comfortable" shoes, canvas deck shoes, or very low pumps. Sleeves were long and even tee shirts came down to the elbow. Under each top was an undershirt, under each undershirt was a camisole, under each camisole was a quilted bra, and under the bra there may or may not have been a woman. Who could tell? I suffered an odd form of reverse culture shock when I returned from Korea to Berkeley -- from 1956 to 1986. My college classmates were walking around as good as naked. Shorts that exposed the entire thigh, halters and tank tops exposing navels and bra-less violence! I wanted to tell those shameless hussies to go put some clothes on; sure I did.
Back in Suweon, even in after-hours mufti Miss Han was bound and wrapped, mummified in starched cloth, elastic, and cotton. Our cuddles and gropes were useless adventures and even in hottest mid-summer I was practicing archeology under the trees. Each layer peeled back intimated further the great discoveries that were buried beneath, just as aerial-reconnaissance will show cities buried in the sand: here the outline of a temple, there a chieftain's storehouse, here a fertile delta, there (could that be?) a breast. It was hot, dirty, thankless work exploring her territories, and more than once I lost sight of my goal while struggling with hood latch and padlock.
One time I laughed out loud, surprising us both - while trying to unfasten some mysterious bit of steel reinforced foundation garment I got distracted and found myself humming. "Lydia, Oh Lydia, Say have you met Lydia? Lydia, the tattooed Lady?" Pretty much from that point on I gave up my dreams of glory, my hopes of gold. Her riches went undiscovered and I left troy for someone else to plunder. I can't tell you why we stopped seeing each other, or at least I won't; suffice it to say that there were other issues (like her older brother catching us holding hands once near North Gate.) I will say that it was probably my own fault. But then, isn't it always?
My Favorite Demonstration Story
I started writing this Proustian digression when someone asked me to tell my favorite Demonstration story. (... and then Alice ... remember Alice? This is a song about Alice.) This period was a politically "interesting" period. People Power had just successfully removed a longstanding dictator in Manila and Koreans of all political stripes were hoping it would do the same in Seoul. Demonstrations were common, almost weekly affairs and the students from campuses in and around Suweon were fairly active. In return for their civic-minded marches around the downtown area the police bestowed them with the gift of teargas. The generosity of the provincial Police was particularly noteworthy - they made sure that the masses could enjoy the lingering bouquet for days. One common tactic of the students and their fellow travelers was to march on the traffic circle at South Gate and battle the police there so as to best disrupt the economy and transportation of Suweon. South Gate was the hub for both.
One hot day the demonstrators wanted to make an especially prolonged encounter to rally the masses so in questionable wisdom they took over the structure of the Gate itself. The police responded with even worse judgement. They tried to break up the students' fortifications by sending the backed up traffic through the roundabout. However while one group of police were trying to ignore the students' presence that way, another group was readying their grenade launcher.
Some fool gave the order to fire just as the buses were coming around from the other side. And it being the hottest part of summer, the bus windows were wide open. Of course a teargas canister flew right in an open widow. There was a delay, a cosmic double take, and suddenly the pitched battle stopped on all fronts. All of us who were watching were counting down in our heads - "seven, six, five, four, three" -, as I am absolutely certain the victims on the bus were. Then I can only imagine what the terror was like inside that cheek to jowl bus as the spinning canister on the floor started spewing out parti-colored smoke like the vomit from a drunken salary man. The exodus began even before the smoke started seeping out the windows. The doors were jammed closed by the press of people trying to fit though the single file apertures and the quick thinking people on board started climbing out through the windows, falling to the ground beneath with ever more jerking bodies falling on top of them. It was an evil clown car with never ending aunties in motley climbing over each other to get away from the smoke; it was a Keystone Kops movie featuring direction by Scorsese.
The student and police both rushed in to help the victims in the crossfire. I wish I could say that there was a lesson. There wasn't. To my inexperienced point of view, it was just a group of people pissing on each other's feet with the best of intentions.
Back To School
I left Korea and went back to the states at some point to finish school and get on with life. Life never happened though, so I found myself back in Seoul teaching.
Back in the mid eighties, especially before the Olympics, the threat from North Korea lent a palpable tension and military air to Seoul. Seoul was less than 30 kilometers of mostly farmland from the North Korean border. It was a very common sight to see soldiers patrolling the streets of Seoul in full gear with rifles at the ready. In fact, the first experience of any foreigner flying in to Korea at the time was being told to close all the blinds when coming in for a landing at Kimpo. Then once the plane landed, far from the terminal, it was immediately surrounded by soldiers pointing automatic weapons at the plane and the plane would be boarded by a pair of soldiers who would walk down the aisle of the plane from First Class to Smoking -- again, with guns drawn. To Koreans, who learned of the West only from Hollywood movies, every American exercise their second amendment right and had gun fights every time they visit the local 7-11. Of course, to Americans, most who had never held a gun in their lives seeing armed soldiers on street corners was distressing.
Around this time I was teaching at one of the more prestigious English conversation schools in the old heart of Seoul, Chong-Ro. There were about 15 teachers there, as I recall, all of us going through various stages to different degrees of culture shock. Korea was, and remains, alien to most Westerners. One of the teachers was having more trouble than most, Monty. Monty had some substance abuse problems that were exacerbated by the ubiquitous availability of 30 cent/700cc bottles of soju. (Soju -- a Korean vodka originally made from yams, but in the 80's apparently cracked from petroleum distillates.) At one point he discovered opiate based sleeping pills available over the counter and managed to "cure" his alcohol addiction. Monty probably had culture shock from the day he was born, but living in Korea at a time when English was nonexistent and very few Koreans had ever been abroad or had even seen a foreigner, Monty was barely hanging on.
One day, Monty stormed into the teacher's lounge during my break period. He threw his books down, and started ranting unasked, "Those f%(7ing Koreans! Do you know these militaristic bastards even have a holiday celebrating their combat rifles? I swear, David, all they want to do is kill us all. One of these days they're going to rise up and shoot every one of us teachers."
I put down my paper, "Monty, what the hell are you talking about? A holiday for guns?"
"Yeah. Combat Rifle Day!"
"That doesn't sound right. Where did you hear this?"
Monty had been having the conversation in class with his students that all conversation teachers have in the beginning levels (...and in the intermediate levels, and in the advanced levels): discussion of holidays. During his class he asked the students about Korean holidays and apparently, he was told by his students that such a holiday existed. This was the straw that shattered Monty's tenuous grasp on equanimity.
"Monty, that can't be right. Bob, let's go upstairs and see if his students are still around." I expected the students would be, because Monty's class still had 15 minutes to go.
Bob and I both spoke a little Korean. Together we were probably minimally competent to handle this conversation.
When we got upstairs, there was a huddle of distressed looking students milling around the doorway to Monty's classroom. Even here on the third floor, we could hear Monty from the second floor teacher's lounge, screaming and slamming locker doors.
"Excuse me, are you from Monty's class?"
Taking a moment to confer in the huddle, one student was pushed forward to speak as a representative, "Yes."
The poor bastard clearly thought he was in trouble.
"Don't worry, we're just trying to figure out what happened. Were you talking about holidays?"
He turned back for a quick conference with his gaggle of sheep-faced classmates, and then answered, "Yes."
"What holidays were you talking about when Monty got upset?"
Another conference ensues. When consensus was reached, the representative looked at us confidently and said, "Yes."
Bob and I looked at each other and decided to try our weak Korean skills. We repeated the conversation and eventually elicited the reply, "Nyoo Yir, Kurisumasu, Chuseok, Com Ba' Rifu Day, Parent Day..."
"Wait a second -- What? 'Combat Rifle Day'? What's that?"
All the students tried to answer at once, and we couldn't make sense of it so the representative patsy was shoved forward again, "Uhhh..."
"Well, when is it?"
"Uh, ebry yir diprent. Sometime April, sometime Marchi. I don't know. I not Churchi."
"Oh, it's a Christian holiday? How is it celebrated?"
The representative asked his colleagues and the Christians among them prompted him to reply, "Go Churchi. Eggu."
One brave student added, in Korean, "Bunnies."
The light went on, "What's the holiday called in Korean?"
"Bu Hwal Cheol."
A quick mental translation that Bob and I had simultaneously made had us laughing too hard to continue talking to the students. I don't think the students ever found out why Monty was angry or why the other two Americans were laughing like crazy men.
Bob and I went back to the lounge.
"Monty, the Korean name for Easter translates to 'Resurrection Day'; in other words, 'Come Back to Life Day'."
The ferries in Korea that string the southern islands in tangled necklaces run on flexible schedules. They are privately owned and locally operated. They might stop at the pier for unloading and loading and stay till the weather clears, or the wind stops, or enough passengers board to make the trip profitable, or till the crew gets back from lunch. My compositional process works much the same way; and worse, because they stop at each island in the correct order (if not the correct time and date), while my memories seem to lumber from island to island like drunken manatees.
My favorite Island. That would be a good title except I have enjoyed them all. Then perhaps, my favorite Island trip - except that has the same problem. Islands I have seen? Well, if you don't mind that I can't really describe one island different from another and that I probably won't stick to Islands, that title will work for now. So would "Islands in the Stream of Consciousness", but my writing already borders on pastiche and I have nothing to gain from drawing the reader's attention to it.
One island I have been to several times probably deserves first billing: Pokil-do. Pokil is the last island on the old ferry run from the grandiosely titled, flyspecked Wando International port. (Pokil is 12 kilometers from Wando, but that is almost 3 hours in ferry time.) In fact, its major claim to fame is as a rest stop for a Chosun poet heading to Chejudo in the face of a typhoon. This poet and scholar, Yun Sun-do, fell in love with the island, built a few buildings, and created a tourist trade. For the more ghoulish tourist, his relics remain enshrined on the island in some part I've never bothered going to. I understand there is also graffiti on a rock on the island from another famous unknown dead poet, Song Shi-yol. Big deal.
I have been there in all seasons and in all weather. It is a beautiful island with clear warm water and way too many tourists. It is embarrassing how often in Korea I have found myself saying something along the lines of "this would be a wonderful place if there weren't so many Koreans." But it is true. The tourists infest the small towns for a few weeks each summer and kill trees, trample gardens, kill fish, litter waist deep, raise the decibel levels at night to disco ranges, and drink all the water on the island. The locals depend on these vandals for the main part of their incomes so they collaborate. When people board the local bus for the ride back to the ferry terminus or get in taxis, the local council has guards posted to weigh each departing person’s bags to ensure that the tourists are not stealing the very rocks from the beach! A few years ago they realized that if they didn't put a stop to it their heritage would be decorating the gardens and fish tanks of Seoul. But now that I have all this complaining out of my system I can tell you that no matter what experiences I have had there, I have always come away happy that I had visited.
The first time I visited Pokil was in 92 or 3. I went with a group of friends and ex-students. We traveled and, I should mention, drank under the name of cheonbaekyeon (short for cheonguk baeksu yeonhaphwe, or the National Assembly of Mendicants). There was a drawling southern kid whose Taegu accent was a parody of itself, he was slow and big and dumb as rocks, we called him "Hosup". There was a magnificently ugly, sweet natured woman we called "Didi", who has since gone on to live in the US as a pharmacist and has married a gloriously ugly saint of a doctor. (They are the rich, proud parents of two of the most hideously grotesque, happy children you can imagine.) "Charlie" went this trip with us too; the oldest and most life-experienced of the group, he spent much of the week keeping us out of trouble. There were a couple of other people with us but I remember little about them.
We went from Seoul Station to Kwangju by night train. Have you ever taken the night train in Korea in the summer? Chances are your group will be unseated passengers. Most summer train rides were SRO and for students or other young people on a budget that is the best way to go. When we went to Pokil, and when I have taken long train rides with friends most places, I have taken the night train. The ride usually works as follows: luggage is all carry-on and there is a bumpy rush at Seoul station to get on the train and stake out prime territory. For even though we may not have seats that doesn't mean we won't want to sit. Some people crouch behind the doors. Some people, mostly men, stood between the cars or camp out in the water closets so they could smoke. The bathroom "seats" are not for the faint of heart: the toilet is a traditional porcelain "squat" on a ledge, no real hand holds for balance on the swaying train - at least no handholds you'd want to touch -- and if you looked down through the facilities - I don't know why you would want to - you could see the ground rushing along. The less brave and the groups of students are usually in the middle of the cars standing, sitting on laps, leaning on the seated, or if lazy like me, supine under a seat with a newspaper over his face.
For the less lazy, the place to be is standing in one of the groups playing "train" games and eating snack food. If you have ridden a train in Korea you will know what I mean by "train games", but for the locomotive newbies these games need to be seen: they involve rhythm, pointing, and a great deal of sadomasochistic slapping. As the late hours creep on, the games are toned down and the drinking of beer picks up. The beer is purchased at amazing prices from vendors pushing carts up and down the packed aisles. Squid complements the beer, dry squid. And dry squid stinks. Stinks like unwashed feet and urine. (Just thought I'd share that.) At the end of the ride you are tired; you have a headache; you're a little drunk; and you stink in a strange city at 4:00 a.m.
Right down to the squid, that's what our ride to Kwangju was like. We arrived in Kwangju in the wee hours. One of the unnamed of our group took us to a little restaurant near the bus terminal. There we had a "baek ban" dinner / breakfast that would intimidate Mr. Creosote ("just one wafer thin mint?"). Easily and without my usual hyperbolic glee, I can say that there were at least 40 different types of side dishes on the table. Salted this, pickled that, dried fried baked smoked raw. 3 types of jjige - enough to bathe in. Four types of roast fish. The rice came in naengmyun bowls and was domed above the rim by inches. Soup. Fruit. The trays the waitress carried to us were too large to be carried by one person safely if lifted at all - instead they carried the trays to us borne between them like spitted pigs at a luau. With a fried egg on top.
2,500 won per person.
I was for abandoning our island plans and camping out at the restaurant. I was out-voted and dragged from the restaurant to the bus station across the way. We took the most frightening bus ride of my life from Kwangju to Wando. The bus was equipped with a sort of governor that made a smoke-alarm "bweeeeee" if the bus exceeded 80 km/h - it was on parking lot to parking lot, 180 decibels the whole way. The bus traveled on narrow no-pass roads along the cliffs of the rocky southern coast for much of the trip. It would have made a great backdrop for Hitchcock. I thought we pushed a few smaller vehicles off the road to the rocks below but I didn't see any flames and I can't be sure.
When we got off the bus sober and shaky, we were eager to distance ourselves from that bus driver quickly. Despite our fatigue, we shouldered packs and walked down the hill to the Wando International Port. We walked past all that Wando has to offer: coffee shop after coffee shop, brimming with tired girls waiting to service the sailors, fishermen, farmers, and tourists; bar after bar, brimming with tired girls waiting to service; motel after motel, brimming with girls; barbershop after barbershop; and a sprinkling of boat part stores, feed stores, fishing suppliers, package goods shops; and the occasional all-night pharmacy. We walked past the brightly lit fish market, which was running full speed, as it had presumably been doing for hours, unloading, sorting and selling the predawn catch. We walked past the wharf of boats back after a night of fishing, and the boats leaving for a day of the same. We walked past it all, and since the girls with us would have eviscerated us on the spot at one of the scaly cleaning tables leaning over the water, we did without the, ahem, “coffee”.
Since the first ferry wouldn't leave for hours we expected the Wando International Port to be quiet, but when we arrived, we found the entire area covered with the picnic mats and bedrolls of the other travelers destined for the islands. We staked a claim, there to wait the ticket window opening, and as the grey damp dawn came up, we went down. Most of us did the manly job of sleeping while others got out the cute little camp stove and dinky little aluminum pot-n-pan sets and used them for their intended purpose: boiling water for instant coffee. (I generously offered to go back up the road and buy coffee for everyone, but the girls, not wishing to impose on my good nature, voted me down again - this time with threat of bungee cords.)
Several hours passed, while I, lion-like, protected the luggage by lying across the pile on my back, with a straw hat over my face, pouting about the rejection of my offer, and thinking about how good the coffee would have tasted. When the group finally woke me up, someone had already paid for tickets on the 2 p.m. ferry and instant noodles were boiling. After lunch, someone suggested that we "let the lazy bastard wash the dishes". To spare the feelings of whoever was supposed to be the " lazy bastard," I took it upon myself to wash the dishes. Really, it couldn't have been easier. You just put the dishes in a nylon mesh bag on a rope and lower them into the water below one of the cleaning tables for the amateur fishermen. The water churns for a bit as scavenger fish attack the plates and you are done. When I got back, it was almost time to board and I only had time to take a quick nap while one of the girls went to rewash the dishes.
There are two ways to ride a ferry: sitting on the deck, with the sun in your eyes, wind in your hair, fighting back your hangover; or sitting inside on a mat that smells of beery puke, playing Byzantine card games, and snaking on squidy-bits. I stayed above, as I usually do, preferring inhaling to sitting.
Just before we got to Pokil, we stopped at Nowha, and there 90% of the passengers got off. (Those were locals who knew that this was the last stop to buy produce and meat that didn't come with the seasonal "tourist tax" added on. Of course any clever tourists who followed their lead would have been screwed because there would be no way back off Nowha, except for being privately ferried over to Pokil at 40,000 won a head.) Nowha is just over a kilometer from Pokil so it didn't take more than an hour for us to arrive.
And there we were. Standing on a concrete jetty, thinking, "now what?" The "now what" turned out to be fighting the island bred swarms of auntie touts who wait at the wharf to lure tourists to board at their homes. We made our way to the island's one bus, which took us to Yesong-ri. The Yesong village is, as is always the case, 20 houses (ten stores) packed with tourists in the summer and 3 houses (no stores) with farming/fishing families in the winter. When we got there, we fought through another band of cutthroat tourist grabbing privateers to the beach.
There are three beaches on the island, the best known of which is a one-mile strip of pebbles called the Yesong-ri beach. It is backed by the Yesong-ri ("arty-pines village") forest, which is national treasure number something-or-other, and is at best described as a windbreak. We walked up the beach to the very end to where the big rocks started. Luck was with us for just around the bend was an area other campers had recently vacated. They had left us vinyl sheets for ground cloths and rice straw matted into two large tent pads, making it possible for us to put up with bedding down on rocks the size of rugby balls. (We were luckier than we knew at the time, a couple of years later when I went there to camp on my own, I found out that there were no more rice farmers on the island and any straw needed had to be carried in from Wando.)
The stretch of beach we were on was broad and open, but hidden from both directions and was far from fresh water. The seclusion was wonderful but we had reason at times to regret the remoteness. The beach was very hard to walk on, unlike the crunchy, pebbly areas that give the beach its fame. (Of course several credulous boobs - including the KNTO - have claimed that there are medicinal benefits to bathing in the waters of this beach.) Although not steep to the eye, it lay, for the most part, just under the angle of repose. (Isn't that a lovely term? It fits every sense of the word "elegant". There is a commonly held perception that engineers lack romance, spirit, poetry. But, who could be said to lack poetry in their hearts, who find the best way to express "the maximum angle at which a stacked material, under given conditions will remain piled", "the angle of repose"? Such a phase conjures not the India ink and gummed rubber of the doughty draftsman's bench, but the velvety oils of the romantic Impressionist painting gorgeous, fleshy nudes. I hope we all live life at a kind angle.) Every step placed wrong sent skull sized balls of stone skipping, bouncing, and clacking happily, merrily, gaily down to their fellows at the waters edge, joining the rolling, surfy dance. Now that I think about it, it is amazing that no broke an ankle or worse.
We rearranged the straw to our liking and set up camp. Charlie went off to fill the water bottles, perhaps not realizing how heavy those three expanding five-liter jugs would be. Some other industrious sort went off to buy wood. (You can't just find wood on a tourist beach, for three reasons: 1st, it's illegal. 2nd, selling wood at exorbitant prices is a key source of local income. 3rd, there isn't any to be found lying around - tourists before you have burned every scrap, leaving trash to replace the deadfall under the trees. Islanders even have to stop tourists from cutting down live trees on occasion.) Another person went to buy food. And the girls went to pee. I went about pitching the tents, building the fire pit, and setting up the cook area. I am usually not so energetic but at times I would rather do something myself from the start than fix other people's mistakes. In this case, the tents belonged to me and I knew how to keep them from collapsing with each breeze; as for the cook area, well, there are animals on the island that may look cute but you don't really want them rustling for grub next to your tent all night; and the fire pit? There are two types of rocks for a fire pit: good ones and the ones Koreans call living rocks. Living rocks hold moisture and they explode when heated. As people came back from their various self appointed errands they were glad to see I had done some work but they were annoyed to see that I had stenciled the words "cheonguk baeksu yeonhaphwe" in six inch high Chinese characters across the larger tent's face before embarking on this trip. It might have been fun to joke about the club name with each other, but the rest of the team was a wee bit embarrassed to live in eight-man, yellow billboard advertising the National Assembly of Mendicants! But what the hell, most of the equipment was mine and I had carried it.
The first day went without too much else going on. Those who wanted to explore, did; and those who wanted to swim, read, nap, or just watch the water, did. In the evening the loud white noise of the rocks in the surf made everything quiet, even erasing the hooting of the bongjak played by the unseen revelers down the beach. We cooked meat over the fire and ate raw vegetables and rice. The girls went to sleep and so did most of the guys, but Charlie and I sat out passing a bottle back and forth, not doing much of anything.
And as the night got darker, and the fire's embers ashed over, our eyes and ears adjusted to new lights and a louder quiet. The wavelets pushing and pulling the rocks at the beach edge were foaming and glowing. Their phosphorescing froth, peaks and troughs, made patterns of inscrutable design. The sky reflected the bright sealight with starlight of its own. The full steady black between the stars was more grout than background - the stars stood out like tiles in a mosaic. Without the light pollution of a city anywhere nearby the Milky Way was the glare of light shining into a dark room through the crack under the door.
Around 2:00 in the morning, fireworks started as a shower of meteors hit the atmosphere. They were the kind of tail-trailing shooting stars that move slowly with an almost audible whoosh of red and green and yellow that leave with floating spots in your vision and tears in your eyes. Watching was mesmerizing, and at times, I had to gasp, having forgotten to breathe.
In the morning, the sun came up angry and jealous. It was already heating up with the kind of scorching shine that hurts were it touches skin. As a group, we tried to think of something to do to cool off. In hindsight, what we decided was probably not the best choice: we decided to rent a local fishing boat, expecting it to be cooler out on the water. Charlie and another guy negotiated for the ride, but it still ended up costing us an immense sum for a three or four hour tour.
The boat was just an open wooden thing with a deafening diesel engine. We got in while Charlie dickered for bait, which to little surprise had not been included in the "all inclusive" boat rental fee, and was considerably extra. Eventually they agreed upon a price, at which point our captain procured some scarlet sea worms and we were on our way.
It was a beautiful day, although the sun still seared the skin where it touched, and the water was clear to the bottom a few dozen meters from shore. Though the girls had parasols and the guys had hats -- Charlie and I had big straw hats that we had worn on several previous adventures -- and though the breezes were cool, we were suffering in the sun. The water was inviting and if the currents hadn't been visibly, perilously strong a few of us, myself included, would have swum.
The boat captain (that's too grandiose a title, "driver" would do as well.) took us to look at various vaguely scenic rocks sticking out of the water here and there and then he took us to where two currents met in a groin between three stony islets. He showed us how to rig the lines and in no time we were failing to catch dozens of fish. After an hour, we couldn't take it any more; we had 3 or 4 marginally edible fish colored like ajuma outfits and the sun was just too damn hot. The captain told us to pull everything out of the water, which we took to mean our lines. Then he pushed the throttle and the boat leapt away from that spot, ripping our creel off the boat, leaving it to slowly sink with our few "ajuma fish" out of sight.
When we got back to the pier we were closer to the pebble beach than our camp site so we decided to splash in the water for a while.
Over here where most of the tourists were, the water was brown, tepid, and cloudy. Moreover, from the hordes of little kids paddling I'd guess the water was saltier here too! I thought the water would cool me off but, although it did, it wasn't a help. I had already been feeling the effects of sun poisoning from the amazing sunburn I had earned and the cold water caused some sort of shock. I lost all energy and felt as though I was going to pass out so I tried to stagger out of the water. The pebbles hurt my feet, the gentle waves threatened to overwhelm me and I was at the edge of panic. I couldn't yell to my friends a few meters away; I couldn't speak loudly enough to make my self heard. I was starting a severe asthma attack.
The waves did knock me down but I was able to crawl forward out to the edge of the water and I lay there, exhausted and terrified. I was eventually able to find my way back to my feet and I hobbled, a ruined old man, slowly back towards our camp. Our camp was now much further away. On the long walk back I had to sit every couple of yards; more than once I crumpled, strangled for air, coughing, blacking out.
Worse happened, as well. I met some local fishermen's wives, friendly and drunk, picnicking on the only path between the bathing beach and our campsite. They, the fishwives, accosted me, pulled me down, forced soju on me and tried to embarrass me. They had never met a foreigner before, I spoke some Korean, and I was young. These demimondaine wannabes goosed me, pinched, and prodded. They tried to take my clothes off. They wanted to see if what they had heard about foreigners was true. I had to get out of there and I fled as best as I good with their joking vulgarities thrown at my retreating back. I fled with my t-shirt and straw hat left behind.
It took me over an hour to walk back to our camp. No one else was back yet, so I climbed into the eight-man tent and tried to sleep. Tents get hot in the sun like greenhouses but there was nothing else to do and I was shivering, unable to get warm. When the others got back from their various post swim jaunts, they were shocked but there was not much that they could do. None of them had any experience with an asthma attack and did not know what to do. For that matter neither did I. I did not have my inhaler with me and we were more than a full day's travel from the nearest hospital. Didi, being a pharmacist, went to the big village on the island to try to find meds. When she came back all she had been able to find at the island drug store were some antihistamines to combat the sun poisoning.
It was better than nothing and I slept through the rest of the day and night, sleeping through lunch and dinner. I only woke up a few times, each time shivering and freezing. Even with all my clothes on, I couldn't get warm. When I woke up I felt much better - I no longer though I might die, and my asthma was ok if I moved slowly.
That morning I asked how the others had spent their nights, expecting that they had been gifted with the same shower of lights Charlie and I had been given. Unfortunately for them though, apparently on the second night the falling stones were hitting the atmosphere at a different angle and Charlie told me that the rest of the group had seen only typical sparklers and not the screaming streamers he and I had privately shared. I also discovered to some embarrassment that while I was shivering in fevered sweats alone in the big, eight-man tent, the other six or eight people our group, not wanting to disturb me, had all squeezed into the three-man tent and spent the night in considerable discomfort. Further, they had spent the night without a campfire to sit around, as they were unable to get a fire going -- even after burning all our toilet paper (a notably non-flammable choice for tinder) in the attempt. It turned out that I was the only one who had ever learned how to build a fire. (I always knew that my childhood arson experience would come in handy one day!) That surprised me: I had assumed that fire building would be a universal skill, and besides, every other guy in the group had been in the Korean military. I suppose it is just another cultural difference of the sort that will continue to blindside me if I live here for another 50 years.
I spent the next day or so lounging. It is what I would have done anyway so except for religiously avoiding directly sunlight I enjoyed the rest of my time at the Island, no matter how weak the ongoing asthma attack made me. It was a different story when it was time to go however. The camp had to be taken down and as most of it was my equipment, I wanted things stored correctly so nothing would be broken or lost. Had I been just a little bit better off I would have done it all myself but as it was I could only "direct" and "supervise". It was uncomfortable for everyone and so in the end Charlie did most of the work with what help I could proffer.
Once everything was packed up and ready to carry away, we (by which I mean "they") policed the area for wind blown litter, burnt our straw ticks and non-plastic trash, doused the ashes with the last of our water and a few buckets of seawater, scattered the scorched and oil-stained rocks of the fire pit, and piled the unburnt wood. There was actually some friction in the group over these going away preparations: several in our team were for just leaving our crap (and the crap from the previous campers) scattered about. Charlie, Hosup, and I prevailed though and we left the beach cleaner than we found it.
Walking back to the place to catch the bus back to the main village, I tried to carry my own pack. However, I was slowing the group down. As there was only one chance for the bus and one chance for the ferry that day the others stripped me of my bags and my pride, and half dragged me to the bus. There was a line at the bus stop and there was a delay as all the bags had to be hefted one by one by the local equivalent of village game wardens to make sure that no one was poaching the local sea-smoothed stones. One or two tourists had bags that were suspiciously heavy and they were asked to empty them. Sure enough, they were stealing rocks. When the wardens came to our team the younger fellow started to check our bags and demanded that I empty my pack. His older partner came rushing over and said with something approaching amazement that he had seen us clean up our site and from that point on we were treated as honored dignitaries and moved to the front of the queue.
There were no more complications and really nothing of note until we got back to Wando. Once there I wanted to carry my own pack on the hike back up to the bus station and regain some face, if only a little. My embarrassment was especially acute since I was clearly in the eyes of the locals a big healthy young man. I was 20 to 40 kilos heavier than anyone else in Cheonbaekyeon and I was walking nearly empty handed while the others struggled with mountains of luggage. When I explained this the others still refused to give me all my gear back, but one wit suggested I walk apart from the group and yell out "Leper! Cripple! Unclean!" each time I pass a Wando native. That earned him a nice smack on the back of the head from good ol' Charlie.
Nonetheless, I now had a pack back and the others mindful of my special needs took a slow meandering pace. On our return trip, my suggestions of coffee were again rejected but we did detour thru the fish market where I bought a very well-priced, still twitching 10 kilo fish for my then mother-in-law-to-be. I would say it - the fish, not the mother-in-law -- was some sort of tuna, but ostieichthyology isn't my bag, baby. The woman packed it in ice in a twine tied Styrofoam fish box for me. (I know it's hard to believe -- there IS ice in Korea.) I was worried but she promised me it would stay cold until Seoul, but warned me, "It may drip." Later in the hot stuffy train, I found out to my fellow passengers’ discomfort that it did indeed stay fresh and it did indeed drip. Eventually our car smelled like a hastily and prudently deleted simile. The rest of our slow walk was pleasant and we made it more enjoyable by taking turns singing ad-lib versus of the Korean Beggar's song. (The refrain is something to the effect, "I'm the beggar who annoyed you last year AND I AIN'T DEAD YET!") My mind boggles today at the recollection of how easy making up those versus came to me that day and I can only chalk it up to which ever muse drinks makoli and sleeps on the bus ride home.
When we got to Seoul station at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. I felt pretty good, or good enough to carry my own damn pack anyway. So we said our goodbyes and I crossed underground to where I could catch a bus out to my girlfriend's house. A 60 something granny came up to me while I was standing there studying the bus signs. She asked me if I wanted some oral "coffee". I laughed at her and asked "don't you think you are a little old for this business?" She harrumphed something about the being girls in the motel over there and stormed off.
I was still chuckling to myself when I gave up on the bus signs and called my girlfriend to ask which bus to take. The bus arrived quickly and much too soon I was in her neighborhood with no place to go, and carrying a rapidly warming, HEAVY fish. So, against etiquette and better judgment I went to her house and rang the bell thinking I could hand her the fish and go away. Unfortunately, one of her elder brothers answered the door and gave me a look that could have peeled lead paint. He gave me the meanest thank you I had ever heard and closed the door, telling me come back at eight.
Leaving my gear in their yard, I wandered around for a while until I could find an open bathhouse and I scrubbed away several days of sweat, grime, sea salt, and soot. My sunburn was much improved but I was still too sensitive to soak in anything but the cold tank. I rested as long as I could without falling asleep and then I walked for a bit until I found a coffee vending machine. After 10 or 15 cups, I was ready to go and I went back to the in-law-to-be house.
Sometime between god-awfully early and ungodly early my mother-in-law-to-be had gotten up, poached half the fish in some horrid concoction of leeks, garlic, and soy sauce, and sliced the rest for sushi. So, when I showed up again I was invited to breakfast. It turned out that what I thought would be a good choice of fish probably was not: I know now from experience that they probably would have preferred something dried and pungent. Nevertheless, I think that they appreciated the thought and didn't mind the early morning visit too much.
We ate the fish. Then my girlfriend and I went on a date, after which I went home, and peeled.
If I have to pick a second favorite island trip it would be the forgotten visit.
In the early 90’s Charlie, Guinam, a friend of Guinam’s, and I made plans to visit Bigeum-do. This choice of island destination was based on the strong recommendation of the friend who had some family connection there. After plans and schedules had been made the friend bailed out on the trip and the 3 of us set out alone. No longer as young as we had been on earlier trips the train, bus, and ferry were quieter affairs altogether.
On the way down there we made a side trip to see one of Charlie’s uncles somewhere in Cheolla-do. As is typical at a country farm we were fed. The Uncle gave us some chilis to eat with the meal and popped one in his mouth saying, “don’t worry there’re not hot.” This not being our first rodeo we waited and watched him but when he took another bite we knew it was safe so we had some too. The old man then spit his out, with his dentures, laughing and said it almost killed him but it was worth it. The most impressive thing about the sidetrip to me wasn’t how far the old codger would go for a laugh but how Charlie would leave the house and go outside the gate every time he wanted to smoke. He wouldn’t smoke in front of his elder. The subtle politeness and respect inherent in that touched me.
(Charlie often surprised me with little signs of respect that he worked into his familial interactions. Once after a trip to the states I brought him back a pair of high end binoculars. At the time such things were not for purchase in Korea because they would aid possible spies from the north. Telephoto lenses as well -- they weren’t illegal but you couldn’t buy them. When I gave them to him, he was very grateful but then he surprised me by making me come up to his parent’s house and give them to his father. He explained that if he accepted them for himself it was all well and good but if I gave them to his father the old man would be pleased at the expensive gift but not having any use for them would re-gift them to his oldest son, Charlie, anyway, and so the value of the gift would be doubled.)
The three of us bought straw hats while waiting for the ferry and Charlie and I threaded bootlaces around the crowns of ours to act as chinstraps. Guinam felt that to do so looked foolish and beneath his dignity, if one can be said to have dignity while wearing floppy straw hats. When it was time to board the boat to the island we bought a big sack of puffed corn to snack on and some raw beef to cook on the island. As expected. As soon as the boat pulled away from the terminal the wind took Guinam’s hat on a flying adventure and so it leaves our story now. Charlie and I enjoyed eating the corn out of our overturned hats and teasing Guinam for the rest of the ride. Once we got to the island we bumbled around trying to find the village that the absconded friend had insisted on. We finally felt like we were in the right place according to sketchy directions and eventually made negotiated camp in some farmer’s back yard area, nowhere near any tourist facilities.
The shore a kilometer away was unsuitable for any purpose, drab mud flats, sharp shell-encrusted boulders, and a foul stench. At night on the shore there were no stars because of the squid boats off-shore. These boats bait the squid into the nets by shining weapons-grade spotlights into the water. The sound and light pollution blocked any sense of nature. So the fact that we weren’t at the beach didn’t upset us.
We had our tents pitched, a small fire set up, and a hammock strung between two pine trees, (I was particularly proud of the hammock because when I bought it a year earlier everyone told me I would never find a use for it.) and were lazing around with nothing much to do when our campsite got a visitor. He was a very merry tipsy fellow who told us to hurry up and wanted us to follow him. Although we had no idea what was going on we did and ended up at a traditional farm house that had the entire village in the courtyard. Eventually we pieced together that it was the farmers Hwangap party and as someone had heard there were guests in the village it was imperative that we be included. This was not immediately clear to us but we went with the flow. The layout as I recall was a high wall around threequaters of a bare soil yard and open to the fields on the fourth, two recently vacated and swept cow stalls against one wall, a long open porch against the house, and near the cow stalls, various piles of the type of trash that farmyards acquire (torn nets, tools that need repair, various handles, old baskets, et al.); in front of the porch piles of shoes, boots and slippers; surrounding the guest of honor on the porch were two or three long tables of food and at the far end several people jamming on numerous janggu, buk, and jing; in front of the cow stall were two 50 gallon rubber garbage pails filled with homemade nongju. Floating on top were bright plastic pagaji style dippers and a few large dried red chilis. Around the edges of the courtyard were mats with low tables of villagers feasting. But in the middle of the courtyard was a nonstop dancing conga/hora of revelers singing and making noise with gaengari.
To greet the honoree, one had to pass the Nogju and drink a large bowl in his honor. To reach the tables one had to accept and drink a large bowl. To reach the bathroom one had to accept and drink a large bowl. Of course, accepting a large bowl of Nongju requires that one acknowledge the generosity and pour one for the person who proffered it. Who in turn MUST thank one and offer a bowl in turn. Good manners suggest that the only proper response to this kind gift is to drink it in one long chug, tip the now empty bowl over ones head to signify its complete consumption and refill said bowl returning it to the original provider, who wishing to signify his eternal gratitude… a loving and festive mood is felt by all.
And passing by the dancers -- and any movement including sitting still and praying that the happy fellow with the dipper of drink doesn’t see where you escaped to, means passing by the dancers – means a great tremendous serious risk of being pulled into the dance. Even Guinam who has trouble walking due to polio as a child was dancing, gaengari in hand. The Nongju that made the lame dance! And the dance formed a bizarre Mobius shape bringing us to the nongju every nth cycle.
I cannot describe the food but I still recall the nongju: homemade makeoli, sweeter and both coarser and smoother than the stuff in the stores up north, fizzy with bottles of soda, dried chilis, and some medicinal herbs added. Charlie tells me that I claimed that there must have been cannabis added to the drink as one of the herbs and that the effects were like cocaine. I have to take his word for it because three days later we went back to Seoul with no clear memories of how we passed the time there, hence, “the forgotten trip”. I have some photos of one or the others eating beef at the campsite cooked on some scrounged asbestos roof tile or peeing on a stone wall. There is one picture of me, pipe in mouth lying back in the hammock reading a paperback and looking exceedingly smug. The party was still going when we left. Not once did we feel like outsiders there; we were just shirttail relations down from the big city for the hootenanny.
On the boat back Guinam threw our hats in the water.
return to pokil, or how I bought a hahm for 20,000 won,
Henry was the third dog I acquired in Korea. The first was a Pomeranian puppy that I paid an arm and a leg for as gift that my future wife requested. She had it for one night, got notification that she had gotten the job she had been waiting to hear about, and she returned the dog for a non-refund to the petshop. Our second dog purchased after we got married and returned to Korea was a black yorkie / teacup-poodle mix named Yaho. I have no idea where he came from or how he ended up in our lives. Yaho was a funny little dog with a big personality, who unfortunately had no idea that he was tiny. We brought him to America for a few weeks when I switched jobs and then brought him back to Seoul. He was a great travelling companion because he could be put in a pocket if your hands were full. He and henry used to love playing on the hill in front of our house and they were both able to be without a leash to frolic under the trees. He eventually met his end when a semi feral chindo that wandered the open areas near our house broke his back for not showing proper deference.
Henry was given to us by a local vet in Seoul 6 weeks after his birthday, 26 January 1995. He was a shy but intelligent toy poodle puppy with lovely relaxed apricot curls. The owner of the litter was going to have him put down because his curls weren't tight enough for show and his legs were too long. But his tail had already been docked and we loved his ramen coat. He grew into a handsome largish toy with strong muscles and a handsome line. My aunt who had only seen his pictures over the years refused to believe that he isn’t a stuffed animal.
We already had Yaho and Henry and he got along fine. The tiny Yaho had to share a food dish and Henry quickly grew to a muscled 8kg, double Yaho's size. Despite his size he treated his "older brother" with respect. It amazed us that he showed such self-control and generosity even when he could take his place as alpha and eat everything: even though they shared a dish, Henry never ate more than half the food and wouldn't touch it again until Yaho finished later in the day.
Even though he was neutered at 6 months he wasn’t by nature a gentle dog with strangers outside the home and on one occasion, while on the leash with my daughter, bit a rollerblader. He thought the whirring noise from the skates was something attacking the boy and attacked the top of the shoe. We had to have his teeth dulled to placate the victim.
He wasn’t violent but he was very defensive of his family. He would have killed our vacuum cleaner if allowed to. But by the same token, children and other pets could climb on him with impunity. Our iguana used to perch on him for warmth in Korea and a bird we rescued in the Philippines sometimes rode on his back. The only animals he couldn't stand were monkeys. The only time he ever raised his hackles was if he saw or smelled monkeys.
He was gentle with my daughter when she was born 18 months after him. When she was teething she even bit the end of his ear off and he never retaliated or feared her. The only time he ever truly disliked her was when as a toddler she tried to plug an electrical cord in his nose. He was protective of her until she was old enough to protect him and when her brother was born five years later, Henry was just as interested in the new baby. He wasn't a demonstrative dog: he didn't lick and he didn't fawn. But he followed those two children from room to room their whole lives.
When Yaho was killed by a neighborhood stray, we didn't replace him and that may have been a mistake as Henry became depressed and anxious after that; howling when we left him alone and scratching at the door until we returned. He outgrew the scratching but apartment life meant we had to have his voice surgically removed. Until he grew deaf in his final years thunderstorms and fireworks drove him crazy.
Despite these behavioral issues Henry was a good dog. If his person was too tired to throw the ball, he would run up a small steep hill near our house and drop a golf ball down the slope, then chase it and repeat this for 30 or 40 minutes until he was too exhausted to play further – this hill running probably contributed to the arthritic hips that plague him now. He never brought the ball to us asking us to play but would play all day if we suggested. When he was done he would let us know by “losing” the ball.
He loved fetch and he loved water. Henry never passed a puddle if he could go through it. When we lived in Suweon, he used to walk in the mountains and fields and with me. A few times if I didn't call him back fast enough he would go barreling through muddy paddies and once in the winter dove through the ice of a fishpond. Even now a bath or shower will have his tail wagging and he gets as frisky as an arthritic dog can be.
Henry was not a destructive dog despite his anxieties. I can count on one hand the things he has ruined over the years and almost all were in the first year with us. The funniest thing he ever did like that was share a 5lb bag of flour and a 2lb bag of sugar with Yaho in a game of tug-of-war all over our one room apartment when he was a puppy. We came home to find him in a snowscape, standing on the dining room table playing keep away from Yaho with a piece of flour sack.
Henry loved his family. In Korea when it was cold, he would demand to be allowed on the bed, then into the covers where he would snuggle down to just under our feet at the foot of the bed. In the Philippines he slept in a chair near the bed and when he got too lame in his hips for that jump he started sleeping in the kitchen under a worktable where he could always see someone. He always had a penchant for being underfoot in the kitchen. Not for the food but just to be with us. Even lame, deaf, and blind, if someone was cooking he would lie down in front of the stove in the most awkward place possible.
He doesn't beg at the table anymore but when he could still do so he would sit near the table and watch all the guests until he knew who the softest touch would be. Then he would sit next to that person and pat them on the leg until given something or told “no”. He was very dignified and polite about it and if told no by everyone would go to his bed. His big trick was that he shook hands when asked in any language. Guests never caught on that, since we lived in a polyglot household, he was trained for gestures not words. Palm up meant, “shake”, snapped fingers meant, “sit”, palm down meant “stay”, and pointing at him meant “drop whatever is in your mouth NOW”. He obeyed well his whole life until arthritis stopped him from sitting and blindness took his recognition of gestures. As he grew blind he would still get treats from us but had to take them from our hands instead of catching them out of the air.
His spirits perked up when we rescued a puppy-mill schnauzer, Jack, in January 2005. They became close and as Henry aged and got first too old to wrestle and later too old to chase each other, jack was content to sit and lick Henry ’s ears until Henry would chase him away. Even though Jack outweighed Henry and Henry had lost muscle Jack has always allowed Henry to be the dominant dog.
In 2005 we brought him and Jack to the Philippines and he adjusted to the new life here with no major problems. He loved having a yard to run in and having maids to follow around. He liked pooping in grass more than seems decent to describe.
These days, though his age has crept up on us. He falls a lot. He has trouble walking. He has gone blind and has been selectively deaf for a few years. He sleeps a lot and can’t make it up or down stairs anymore. We know it is time. I can’t let him suffer just to avoid making a hard painful decision.
This week he struggled up a flight of stairs to join us in my son’s room and I realized that he hadn’t done that for many months. My chest hurt and I had trouble breathing because it suddenly hit home: “He still knows us sometimes. Henry is still in there. And he’s trapped.” He doesn’t seem to be suffering overmuch, but he cannot be happy. Knowing he still has lucid moments and not just floating means it was time to let him go.
I have known him as a puppy and grew old with him. He was there for the birth of my children and he was with me through my divorce. He has helped me be a single father. He has been a friend and partner to me and a brother to my children.
I cannot say good-bye, just “Good boy, Henry. Good boy.”