Time and Circumstance: An Expat’s Dilemma

June 27, 2007  

Another short set of friendships reach that unsure time.

Greg and Jen are gone, back to Canada.  Have known them for two months.  Together, they were both gracious upon my arrival; separately, they each had their own talents.  It is astounding what we can learn of a person in such a short time.  I sat down with this couple a few times over Korean barbeque and a few times over a glass of wine.  In the one time I saw Jen teach, I remember being amazed to learn that she had no formal training in instruction; she is a master at engaging the students.  Also, she has a level of confidence that endears her to her students and friends alike.  Greg is a seemingly scatter-brained philosopher whose slow way of talking was refreshing; I like watching people think.  In waiting for him to compose a thought, you could tell he was always searching for the right words to say.  Too often, people are too quick to say something or anything and it comes out sounding like either a load of hog-shit or it is just completely stupid (often I am guilty of both).

I feel at this point, having met so many Canadians in my time here that, whichever contacts endure the tests of time and life, I will have to plot a driving trip across the great white north sometime in the next couple years.

June 29, 2007

Another friend gone. 

Rob arrived yesterday afternoon here in Anyang, we hung out in the humid apartment, talked some shit, talked about our plans (mine after this contract could go one of two ways (as I conceptualize it): traveling or back to work here. Rob is going back for weddings after a brief stop in Hawaii and some traveling around Canada and then he starts a job at a small school in northwest Alberta).  After work, I met up with him again—he had bummed around the parks in the immediate neighborhood, hung out at my apartment, taken a nap—and we went to dwegi galbi with some coworkers.  The next day, I saw Rob off at the bus bound for Incheon International.

The two small town fellas I have met here that have the quiet MO about them (Jed from northern New York state and Rob from Nova Scotia) both have this air of wanting to soak up all knowledge and live life like it never has been lived before—the borders of a small town too constricting; they are not ones to get trapped in the drinking scene—Rob dabbles but isn’t excessive, Jed is on a sober kick.  Rob is always thinking of the trips he is going to take next (wanting, for instance, to go to Thailand next summer) and Jed seems to have his hands in so much—playing chess, writing music and short stories, reading for example.  It is as if the ways of the small town were so oppressive for them that being out in the wider world is so fascinating that they seem not to want to get caught up in the mundane or wasteful.  I admire that kind youthful energy (yes, I am playing the old card because, goddammit, I am old compared to most pups out here).  While my energy in my own endeavors are not as diverse or as youthful as these two fellas, I accept that I am not so young anymore and that the energy for so many different projects is just not there any more, unlike my young small town brothers-in-Korea.  But, I am finding focus in the things that matter—working on the book, reading, good routines and rituals. 

And this feeling of acceptance settles into so many other aspects in my life.  Certainly, this is a lesson I am learning from having to say goodbye to friends on such a regular basis—tomorrow, goodbye Jenie; four more weekends with Janine.  These friendships I form out here are short; but what they might lack in permanency they make up for in intensity, fascination and motivation.

July 1, 2007

In times of stress, chaos, sadness and overwhelming uncertainty, it can be difficult to see that things will get better.  As often as these strenuous circumstances are often beyond our control— and, even more often, they are unforeseeable—a conscious departure from the safe and known are within both the control and predictability of the individual.  But, it would seem that, no matter how much planning you utilize, there will inevitably be unanticipated pitfalls—the manifestation of those fears you had before you took this leap into the “controlled unknown.”  And, before the final leap into that “controlled unknown,” the fears of what is to come can loom so large.

It would seem that, what I just spent a whole paragraph stating could be summed up in one phrase: expect the unexpected.  But why would I trivialize such an immense undertaking as returning to what was once known and is now, almost inexplicably, unknown?  What I write of cannot be tossed aside with such a trite saying when given the circumstances into which an expat might repatriate herself into.  And would sitting down with Jenie on that rainy Saturday night in The Wine Bar Bliss of Itaewon have meant the same had I uttered clichés?  As others surely said their own genuine well-wishes that evening, the only way I could think to send her off was the story of my Catholic-Gypsy ancestry.

Earlier that day, Janine and I spent the afternoon at the 4/19 Memorial in northeast Seoul—which commemorates an April 1960 student march against a fraudulent election that resulted in the deaths of 142 students at the hands of nervous police; Korea’s version of Kent State—we made our way down to Itaewon   With plans to get a motel so we wouldn’t have to travel in a just-as-expensive cab later that night after the trains had stopped running, we got to Itaewon with the lack of foresight on the summer tourism booking up the main hotels, Itaewon and Hamilton.  As time neared to meet Jenie, we still hadn’t found a place, but thought we could take care of it later.  So we stashed our belongings at the Itaewon, met up with Jenie and Jude for a nice dinner at La Cigale Montmartre, my little buddy of past mention, Sarang, was brought along, as Jenie would say, because the little thing was just too nervous, thinking Jenie was leaving her alone.  All night, the little dog accompanied us, lucky not to get smashed by those who aren’t used to such a little thing in a drinking establishment.

At The Wine Bliss Bar, people sat and talked with Jenie, Jenie tearing up because she was saying goodbye to a life she’s known for five years.  Eventually, my opportunity came to spend a little one-on-one time with her, finding out some of the variables in her “controlled unknown.”  I suppose her situation is unique amongst most of the people I have met here, being that she has had so much more time to create lasting relationships and to really adopt Korea as her home, her own country.  So, Jenie, why do you go back?  “Because it’s time,” was her response.  Time for, I guess, a career—though she’s had so much success here—and to be return to the fold of “family” life—though it certainly seems to me she had a pretty secure “family” here.  She acutely feels the social pressures.  But I know she will do just fine, the strong woman that she is will again assert itself in the new situation back home.

Just to say that, though, wouldn’t do.  I had to tell her my family ancestry, how we were a nomadic group of gypsies from what is modern day Minsk, that as we moved west across Europe over the generations, we somehow picked up Catholicism.  Through all the moves and persecutions, my family still maintained their abilities to tell fortunes, using the money to finally move to America.  Thus, I read Jenie’s palm, telling her that this line meant she was going to live a long, happy life and that line told me that the successes she was going to have upon her return to the US.  From my obvious stunt of total bullshit, she laughed some, seemingly allayed of her uncertainties for at least a couple minutes or so.  The real rub to this, or any situation where such enormity seems to lie on success or failure, is that humor can only take you so far; one can only say “fuck it, let’s go laugh and have a few drinks” so many times.

The things that can be easily fixed or really have no fix at all (aside from the fact that you are just a plain old knucklehead) deserve laughter.  The enormity of other problems can be so large and real, why get bothered with the trite?  Around one ay-em, Janine and I said our goodbyes to Jenie with the usual promises to stay in touch and assurances of future visits—and there are many of these that go for naught, but you learn to develop a sense about whether a friendship will be maintained in one fashion or another; with Jenie and me, that’ll certainly be the case.  Hell, we’ve known each other for twenty-five plus years, she was, and will remain, one of my biggest supporters here in Korea. 

So, down to the subway station to retrieve our belongings before heading to this motel around the corner.  The rain was picking up and we were sans umbrella.  When we got below, we realized that the barriers were closed one level above the lockers for the subway.  After some mild pleading, we were unable to persuade the guards to let us in.  We’ll just pick it up tomorrow.  Back out into the rain, sans all things stowed for use that night (toothbrushes, dry clothes, that sort of thing) all safely locked away in the bowels of Itaewon Station.  The rain came down harder as we made our way up what is known as Hooker Hill, the red light district.  I had heard about it but thought the name was a title left over from the war days; besides, we saw none of the women that gave the street its namesake.  Though moisture is always good for the act of sex, maybe the business of sex is not always good when it rains.

Laughter was mounting in our throats as we continued up the road through the neon lighting, the unknown nature of this place, the absurdity of the situation.  Finally, we came upon the designated motel and went, soaking like a couple of stray cats, into the lobby (more like a hallway) where an agima came out of a darkened room.  “Uhl-my-oh?” we ask, just wanting to get a price—not to mention, a viewing—of the room.  “E-chan-o-manwon,” she says as we indicate that we’d like to see the room before paying.  We then followed her up three flights of stairs, alternatingly in and out of the rain in the sometimes unenclosed staircase.  You’d think we would be okay with just about anything given the circumstances (not to mention the price—about $26 US), but a moments hesitation and the old woman turned off the light and closed the door.  I think we may have stayed, deciding on our way down that it’s just a place to crash for a little while.  But then the woman started pounding on one of the doors, yelling what I can only guess was, “Wake up! Get the hell up and out!  Your hour is over!”  We could barely contain our laughter as we made our way down those treacherously slippery stairs, leaving the agima to batter at the door demanding more money or vacancy from the hooker and her john or a couple of teenagers doing it for the first time.  We decided that twenty-five was really expensive for an hour and we, no doubt, wanted at least eight—for sleep.

We hopped a cab, I making the decision for and an eventual return the next day, the twenty-five we’d spend on the ride was worth it for the comfort of my pad and a non-existent checkout time.  Our cabby was a good one, knowing exactly where he was going and dutifully ignoring what must have seemed to him like crazed laughter in his backseat.  But out of that laughter came my oh-shit realization: my keys were in my backpack back in Itaewon.  Laughter soon resumed as the resignation to circumstance and the humor of it all took a hold.  Mind you, this is not the laughter of drunken idiots—honestly, Janine and I had only had a few well-spaced drinks apiece throughout the evening.  This is the laughter of an idiot and his companion laughing with him or at him.  So, we were headed back to my area of town to stay in a hotel that could’ve been just as easily acquired in a neighborhood adjacent to Itaewon.  I quickly decided on the one I knew: the Isabel, the very same I had stayed in for two and a half weeks upon my arrival in Anyang.

Upon arrival at Beomgye Station, I decided to let the Seoul cabby go, I was a little turned around and wanted to take an Anyang cab.  We darted across the street in the pouring rain, slopping through an unseen roadside lake, hopping in another cab, thinking I knew where to go, “E-Mart Pyeongchong,” I said as a landmark near the motel.  But no dice.  We drove around for another 20 minutes as I slowly figured out it was Lotte Mart (as Janine had suggested earlier).  There’s a lesson in this for all of you: Always let someone else make the tough decisions for you.  But why would I want to do that when I can ultimately share my comic stupidity in story form?

Back in Itaewon the next day for a little gift shopping and breakfast, Janine and I decided this was a great weekend, if only for the way in which we had amused ourselves with plans gone awry.  We later went to a Canuck bar, saw some friends from a previous weekend excursion to Muuido, celebrated Canada Day (I being the honorary Canadian for the day).  

My fourth friend has gone this week.  There are three ways I can deal with this regular loss of friends.  One, I can stop making friends.  Two, I can accept the brief but intense nature of these relationships that I do have and continue to form.  Three, I can enjoy insight and humor from the people I meet as I journey—often blindly—through the Korean experience.  The former is just not a possibility.  A combination of the latter two will continue to be my mode.

One thought on “Time and Circumstance: An Expat’s Dilemma

  1. I guess I was paying more attention to the pedestrians than you were, but I saw many "hookers" on Hooker Hill…on the right hand side. We walked right past them…don\’t you remember?

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