Thursday, July 15, 2010

How It's Broken, Why It's Fine


It is not the author’s intention in these rambling, blurred recollections to reinforce any tired clichés about the ‘necessity’ of travel. I do believe that the human spirit is malleable, that we can affect a change in most (but not all) aspects of our nature and that travel is a fantastic way of achieving self-realisation. But travel isn’t ipso facto self-realisation – just a method which may be employed to this end.
If this travel journal (if this “blog”, and god I hate the collocations and connotations of the word) is to have any expressed purpose, it is the merciless celebration of the world. To rattle and run a tin cup against the grey bar of horizon.
Anyway. Here it is, as truthful as prose can be, unabashed, unapologetic.

Part 1 – Arrival/Departure/Arrival

I conjecture that we experience nothing unknown. As I type this now from my desk at Gwangmyeong Buk middle school, I am reminded of the groundswell sense of authority that the teacher's staff room had when I was in school. The silence deepened by prodded keyboards and the whir of the copier. Local time 10.31 in the am. Though I am further from home than I have ever been in my life this place feels known.
My cubicle adjoins my Korean co-teacher’s (Soyeon), and the desk calendar she gave me is beginning to accrue a scar tissue of interlaced dates and appointments though, as of my third day, I am yet to start classes. The closest thing to English language teaching I have done so far is waving to the students as they gawp in the hall. Sometimes, they will gather by the office door to stare at me, one will shout “hi”. When I reply a flock of Korean students will giggle and run away. I have been informed this is normal. About a dozen boys shout after me in the corridors that I am very ‘handsome’. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, this too is deemed “normal”.
I landed in the country on the 6th of April a little before 5.40 in the afternoon. It was my mother’s birthday and so broke and poorly organised was I that I had no other gift to offer her but my absence from Australian shores for the next two years. Waiting outside the security gate for my friend Adam to arrive, I received a call from my recruiter in America – informing me, roughly an hour before I got on the plane, that I would be picked up from the airport and driven to my apartment. Before this call the only information I had for sure was that I was teaching at a school called Gwangmyeong Buk, and that I had an orientation on the 7th in Suwon. Had no one come for me, I would have had to sleep in the airport and train it to Suwon the next day.
Adam arrived, in purple scarf and beige trench coatt, with ahard coverer Bukowski (The Last Night of the Earth poems) and with his usual élan hugs and smiles and words were exchanged freely between himself, myself, Lara (my girlfriend, soon to be flying into Korea to live with me) and my mother.
What happens then? Surely you already know. The same eyes glad-wrapped with tears, the same goodbyes, the same strange lost boy wandering through the international terminal ready to leave for foreign shores. Now without a scrap of Australian currency on his person. Now without a clue to where he was, or the language or culture of the place he was going to. Wondering how it is nothing changes and nothing stays the same.
By the laptop on my desk is a notepad that I first used in my last semester of university, way back in 2007. Like myself, it has travelled over 8 000 kilometres to be here too. But it looks no different in the office fluorescence, by the light of the northern hemisphere.

Part 2 – First Lasting Impressions

Off the plane at Incheon and into Soojung’s car, and my questions would not cease. When was this bridge built, what type of tree is that, why do those stores have fish tanks out the front, what should I know about my school, is it very big, are there bees, what type of bees, is it true you guys don’t eat cheese, I’ve never been in a left-side drive sedan before, etc. Soojung, a very well spoken Korean/Canadian from Y & G recruiting answered as best she could, but her fatigue was self-evident. Through interrogation I learnt one of the most tiring tasks of her job is picking up jerks like me from the airport and ferrying them to their apartments. She expressed the sentiment of the dual citizen – that she missed Canada, and longed to return, and should she arrive there she would miss Korea all the more. Empathising I told her my girlfriend also held two passports and had expressed a similar anxiety before. A scooter flew past with two young boys on it. Without helmets, they slowed alongside then shot through the red light, weaving between the bumpers of two sedans.
“The kids over here – they do that all the time.”
“It's a wonder there aren't more accidents.”
“There are lots.” It was weeks yet until my first personal experience with road safety in Korea – crossing at a green pedestrian light a taxi appeared in the third lane of traffic from behind a stopped bus – beeped twice as it shot past my girlfriend and I doing forty kph at least. Like the dry-mouthed look I gave my girlfriend, like the boys on their red scooter and yes, like the taxi itself, we slipped back into the urban ether.

Part 3 – A cartography of the human spirit

On the road and off again, and Soojung deposits me outside my apartment where my co-teacher Soyeon was waiting. I smile, we exchange Korean then English hellos. Her English isn't as good as Soojung's but her smile is reassuring and I feel invincible below the buzzing neon street, the angst I felt on the plane and at Sydney terminal completely dissipated by these warm greetings and kindly women. I am here! I have made it! Welcome to the unknown! Then, at the door of the apartment, I am met with an ancient Korean archetype – an infamous beast whose progenitors have ruled this land since time immemorial.
Meet the ajumma. Korean for “terrible sea beast” (though literal translation makes it more like ‘older married woman’), these terrifying matriarchs harass and harangue foreigner and native alike. The best way to put it is this. Imagine that shouty, elderly Asian stereotype from the movies. Now remove her from the celluloid and put her two feet below your eyeline, screaming at you in Korea. That is the tactile experience of the ajumma.
My ajumma, like some guardian spirit of the building, met us in the foyer and began her arcane screeching. Up the elevator to the ninth floor and she was still talking, nary a second glance at me, though occasionally a finger would stab out or an ungenerous nod be directed towards my person. Soyeon didn’t even have time to translate. Up to the apartment and she slows down enough to allow Soyeon to explain some of what she was saying – take my shoes off, the washing machine’s broken, how the hot water works – then continues a tirade about what the last tenant did and didn’t do (bathe and take out the trash, respectively) showing Soyeon the broken fixtures in the apartment with what was, I’m sure, the every explicit detail of how difficult foreigners are and why they’re ruining the country and how she should just give this whole building over to the rats, and how her children never call, not that she ever had any, etc, etc. When it came time to explain to me how the door worked, she assumed that I had never seen a door before, and ran over some of the basic features, such as which way it swung, how to operate a handle, not to eat it, again with the etc.
Down to the ajumma's apartment now and Soyeon and this woman are going full tilt. Long, unbroken minutes of bouncing, jostling Korean while I smile and look at pictures of the ajumma’s family. No children feature in the many group photos. After I finally signed for the keys and we go back to the apartment, I asked Soyeon what the woman’s name was. She said she didn’t even know. She’d never met her before.
“Really? But she was talking so much – she talked a lot.”
“I think maybe she is a little – ah – crazy.”

Part 4 – In a City of Red Night

Lara and I's apartment is “studio living”. One moderately sized room constitutes the lounge, bed and dining rooms. The kitchen is just some cupboards with an electric cooktop and a washing machine below the sink. An odd assortment of furniture (two wardrobes, a massive fridge and reasonable TV) with a sunken, suicidal mattress on a murdered wooden base. A pile of aged, uncovered pillows strewn upon it. The kitchen drawers bare except for my complete disbelief – not a scrap of cutlery or crockery in the entire place.
And I was short. Very short. My Centrelink pay was late because of a misplaced form, and a straggling bank transfer from Lara's account to my own left me with very little money. $130 Aus to be exact – roughly making 120 000 Won - which seems like a lot when a meal may only cost 2 or 3000 Won, but when you need to completely equip your bed and kitchen, and a simple blanket costs 30 000 Won, well. You wonder why on earth you came to the ball in a handful of rags.
After Soyeon helped me find a blanket, and impressed upon me her tiredness, I found myself back in my room, alone. Finally left to my own devices I literally jigged for joy. The worry that leadened my feet in Australia completely disappeared when standing on foreign soil (floor). I’m not sure if this is the usual process or a reverse for it, but for me at that moment I was DOING IT. No one could STOP ME. I was ALL UPONS.
So I took myself, jeans and shirt and jumper, threw on my 3/4 length leather coat, my jaunty hat, and walked that windy April night alone. I wandered through the markets, bumped and jostled as I stared at open fish tanks of octopus and abalone and flounder. I watched the market sellers making shallot pancakes on metre-long brass cooktops; admired the wealth of fruit and veg piled on cardboard at my feet; heard and smelt the unending song of the street, which is the song of man in embittered chorus.
But I am no hero – I did not chance a restaurant or food vendor. That first night I made two purchases for myself – a hand of bananas from the supermarket across the road and a loaf of bread from Paris Baguette (an ubiquitous Korean franchise).
And sat on my bed and stared out towards the river, out to the valley of four and five storey apartments stretching toward Seoul. The night itself was dotted by the neon red crosses of the half dozen Christian churches – as you see, all churches in South Korea have a flickering neon icon burning at all hours. Presumably, this allows the wicked to draw a bead on them in the dead of night, when traditionally they need to pound on the doors with their bloody fists and scream “Sanctuary!” as the heat draws close.
Me? I just thought it was pretty.
PRETTY AWESOME! Here it was – here was a city of the red night, and my apartment was warm, a belly with food in, and a place to be where I was expected. I even turned my notebook on and found a wireless signal in my building – thus effecting contact with my mother and my girl. And wrapped my blanket twice around me, and fell to a restless sleep.

Part 5 – Visible Cities, Invisible Cities

This tired frenzied man seems an age ago now. As I finish my drafting, sitting at the desk in my apartment (in the background sirens and the click and whir of the refrigerator) I am struck how quickly routine normalises the foreign. Lara sleeps in the now made bed (she brought bed linen over with her) her hands twitch and finger the blanket. Barring all the Koreans, this ain't Korea no more. The sentiment I felt when I first landed in Perth (the beginnings of my backpacking adventure, a tale for another time) was exactly reproduced and expressed by Lara on the way home from the airport:
“This road, the colours, those trees – it feels like I'm back in Heathrow. Like I'm back in England.”
New as I am to the northern hemisphere and its stark spring foliage, I recognise the sensation – that this landscape is copy pasted from somewhere else. That the whole world is repeating, like a mobius strip of a play's backdrop – though here you will never find a familiar face, never chance upon the smiles and customs and clothing of your loved ones. Here, further from your family than ever, and everything still the same.
But my girl is stirring. In her sleep, she can sense the acceleration of my typing which means my writing is near complete. Her skin is smooth and dark, almost hot to the touch, and I wonder why I have ignored it so long. A dog barks in the distance. The fern beside me shakes as I type. Tonight, it will shake no more.


Daniel East photographed here at the discovery of beer.

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