Category Archives: musing

A cool night

I stick my head out the window of my one room apartment. The night is cool and pleasant, a nice one for taking a walk even though it’s almost midnight. There is wind, and rain is coming. I will sleep with the windows open. I see Korean written on the side of a building. I can read it, but I don’t understand the meaning of the words. I’m still in South Korea. After nine months, I’m still here.

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Love Affair

dpp_001839Sprawling city, circa 2009.

I found this photograph, among other items of interest, in a box, a box I had tucked away many years ago. I am surprised I printed out many of the photos I took then, then being such a revoltingly slow start of the digital age.  Sprawling Seoul City, I remember you well, if only because my memory is so thoroughly entangled in my desire to make things up. (This, if nothing else, has not changed, and for that, I am thankful.) I remember how I was so amazingly impressed at first glance. I was floored; I was enthralled. Dear Lord, have mercy, I would say, at the slightest thing, because all of it, from the women to the traffic, took my breath away. It was all so new. Three days felt like…like nothing at all. Three days could have been three weeks, or three years. I had no sense of time’s movement. Too caught up, as I was, in the gorgeous magic of arriving in the city for the first time. No shock then, that at first all my reports consisted of synonyms of the adjective amazing.

Sorry, dear city, for I left you for another. And, yes, by the time I made it back, I perhaps had had too much to drink to notice you in the ways I did during that first week. I felt not that same jump in my chest, and I noticed none of your subtle qualities, those things which may in fact give anyone more weight with which to call you amazing. Forgive me?

By my third trip, the third in only six months, the one during which I had taken this newly found though tragically old photo, I had realized what I had missed not only on the second outing but on the first arrival as well. In short, I had missed everything. I was in awe again, I remember this well, so as to not let in any doubt, but this time it was not because you were so new to me, city of mine. It was — and if you yourself wish to disrupt this new perspective of mine, try as you might, but I will believe nothing else — it was for one reason alone: I found myself in the places I traveled. I remember once again being struck with amazement, this time without the religious utterings. No, this time, when struck by the slightest things, I saw them for what they were. I saw, sprawling city, circa 2009, that I could have found happiness surrounded by your cosmopolitan air.

So one question remains. After all this time, will you have me back again?

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Eric in Korea

eric-in-korea-smallIt’s been about two weeks since I’ve gotten back from my vacation, and I’m only four days away from being in South Korea for six months. It’s been nothing but a whirlwind so far. A lot of my friends here, both old and new, are leaving soon. For some, their contracts are up, and it’s time to go. For others, their hearts are simply leading them elsewhere. Despite my having a hard time readjusting to life here, I feel lucky to still have six more months left. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that time is gone, but I have a feeling I’ll have figured it out by then.

*

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I want to travel. I’ve been trying to understand the effects travel can have on a person. I’m not sure I have any kind of firm grasp on this yet; I haven’t traveled all that much. A little in the United States, mostly in the Midwest and on the East coast, and of course, South Korea and the Philippines. I always experience an elation upon arriving in a new place for the first time, whether that place was a different state or country. It’s a high, a lot like the feeling of love. I hate to think this feeling goes away, but, of course, it does. After that initial high, you begin to see things more clearly. I think this is where I am with South Korea right now, and I think it’s a great place, maybe the only place, to begin to cultivate something meaningful and real.

*

The photo was taken on Valentine’s Day. A friend asked me to be her date to a fancy dinner an international women’s organization hosted. Her date had cancelled on her at the last minute. It was a great evening: a good dinner, professional dancers, who danced the waltz, tango, and foxtrot, for entertainment, and then some unprofessional dancing of our own. Afterward, I met other friends at a noraebang, and before we left I of course had to sing a song. I’ve never been much for karaoke, but that night I rocked out an energetic version of Hey, Jude. Later, as you can see, I meet up with my real date, Winnie the Pooh.

This is me in Korea, and though I see things here a bit differently now, I think that’s how they were supposed to be seen all along. Here’s to making my time here the best it can be. Cheers.

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Take the beach, for example.

img_1977For the past week, I’ve been trying and failing to make progress on a fictional story I started in a very nonfictional way. I suppose it’s the bad tendency of the out-of-practice writer to take his own experience and try to turn it into a successful piece of fiction. Perhaps this is my bad habit alone. In either case, it’s not a memoir I’m trying to write, and I’m fairly convinced now that no memoirs are successful and engaging unless the author utilizes the imaginative process one uses in the creation of a novel or short story. Memoirs are devious creatures indeed – ones in which I rarely place any faith. When it comes to writing fiction, memory is the same way: take the beach, for example.

My favorite place in Boracay, in the Philippines, is a secluded beach called Puka Shell Beach. It’s absolutely beautiful there. Hardly any people know about it, and so most everyone stays on White Beach, the main tourist spot of the island. I knew about it because a local informed me of it and its location and how to get there. You have to take a motorized tricycle about twenty minutes north. You shouldn’t pay more than 25 pesos (that’s less than a dollar). You should go if you want to get away from all the people, and I really wanted to get away from them. I could have stayed on that beach for a very long time. There are a few people there; I even saw one girl sunbathing topless. But that in itself gives you an idea of how few people there really are. And it’s serene, so serene. I believe in many ways it opened my heart.

But if I want to use this beach in my current work-in-progress, I have to leave the image I have and my memory of it behind. If I don’t, it makes it very difficult to let my imagination take control. I don’t just want to fill in the gaps of my experience there. I don’t just want to put myself in the scene, and wait for an appearance of the wild monkeys. They’ll never come, because I never saw them (though I heard them and saw bats one evening). I wanted to see those monkeys while I was there, but now I’m glad they never showed. I’m perfectly content in letting them live in my imagination. Perhaps I’ll even let them start my story. This is the problem when you try to write fiction from memory: if it didn’t happen, then you can’t write it down. So, the fiction writer, instead, writes from imagination. Everything that didn’t happen on my vacation, including my not getting around to visiting Dead Forest or seeing a cockfight, is just waiting to be developed in story.

In that way, I’m able to relive my time in the Philippines – time I’ve been missing very much since I’ve returned to South Korea.

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Under the Full Moon

full-moonThe city covered by the full moon outside, inside I have dreams, lying on my heated floor, listening to the voice of a favorite female singer, well-known in American independent music circles. When you have dreams this way, on a heated floor, it’s a lot like lying on the beach, except the sun burns from beneath you, not above. I can’t really sleep on the floors, though sometimes I can, so maybe I’ve made some progress, but something about lying on them now, taking in these songs, is rather pleasant, even peaceful. And it shares another similarity to lying on the beach: It makes you satisfyingly drowsy. Then the dreams come, like I’m not even in South Korea anymore. The dreams are a nostalgic mix of memory and imagination, or perhaps of past and future. Of life in the United States and of life in South Korea. How does one reconcile such a thing? In the dreams, I’m nowhere; I have no place, not a sense of home or of belonging. Each country in the world is only a place to visit, not a place to call my own. I’m country-hopping, slowly, the journey only at its beginning. Yet I’m inescapably connected now to two countries – first, the United States, by birth, from growing up there, from the way I look (though many have said I look European, which I always take as a compliment) and second, South Korea, by relocation, from teaching here, perhaps even from my feeble attempts to be more Korean. Still, when I come out of the dream, I have only one home. But more and more – if I can accurately articulate this – I’m finding this to be a problem. I’ve left all of my deepest connections. That is the sacrifice you make when you leave your home country, the country in which your family resides, among other things and people. And it’s not even that you’ve left them; it’s that they’ve become intangible. You begin to wonder what the solution might be, still coming up more or less with a blank response. For now, I’m going to go back to the dreams, the moon still bright and clear. And I’m going to let imagination take over a bit more. What else is it there for, anyway?

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On becoming a minority

A friend from Seoul came to visit me this weekend. A Korean girl, born in Seoul, who I met at Indiana University South Bend, a graduate of Notre Dame who is now doing graduate work at my old university. But before you think oh, what a small, small world this really is a month or so ago I met a Korean girl who lived in South Bend for six months and went to the South Bend English Institute, where I had tried to get employment before coming to Korea. I never would have thought either of these two meetings would have happened, but happen they did.

The friend from Seoul reminded me of a fact which I had not yet acknowledged, and that’s that I’m now a minority. Here I am, a brown-haired, green-eyed, white-skinned American in a sea of brown- and black-eyed, dark-haired Koreans.  Why this had not struck me in impactful way prior to her mentioning it, I don’t know. Even now, it doesn’t really strike me. When I first came to Korea, I found myself socializing with a group of Korean-Americans, standing out from the start, and not caring one bit about it. It was quite good, actually; it was like a crash course in Korean culture.

Now, though, I don’t see those friends much at all, which means the people I hang out with are more diversified. Some are from the United States, others from Canada, still others from Korea, all with different backgrounds, many of which I don’t understand very well. But this is one of the most challenging parts about being here: Meeting people who have different backgrounds than I do and trying to understand them. And I suppose I am a minority here, but I’m also in a minority group, us waegukin, us foreigners, and we tend to find and commune with each other. This happens naturally, like a force pulls us toward each other or at least makes us acknowledge one another on the street, with brief eye contact, a slight head nod, or any variation of hello.

This, I think, is good, so long as we don’t band together so tightly that we shut the majority out. So long as we don’t start to think Korea should cater to us as Westerners. So long as we keep in mind that we are in fact minorities who have been given the privilege to live here, if only for a short, dizzying time.

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Life resumes as normal

The following is an attempt at a short first person account of seeing my sister off at the airport. First person account, it should be said, minus all first person pronouns.


She’s gone now, made it through the line, through the agony of flying standby. She received a seat before going through security, was given the choice of sitting next to a window or the isle. On recommendation, she took the window. Her indecision, though at first mistaken as simple indecision, came from the need to get on the plane, the focus not on where she will sit, but that she gets to sit at all. And so it goes when flying for nearly nothing back to the United States. A benefit with any luck not wasted in the future.

*

Severe case of wanderlust. Sitting in Incheon International, ear buds in, salsa music flowing from iPod to brain to feet, it hits. Coming to Korea was not enough. Just not enough. It should have been, but it isn’t. Sitting, feet kicked up, watching passengers from Korea, from France, from the United States, from everywhere fuels the drive, creates more lust for travel. Lucky then that flights have been booked, rooms have been reserved. The Philippines. Boracay. In less than twenty days. The sun, the sand. A drink, a book. Perfection. Now, though, the waiting, waiting for the bus back to Daegu after departure.

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The sun always sets on the day before

dpp_001777This will be reckless, this writing, this mix jumble of words and thoughts, though it will be reckless with some kind of logic, the kind of logic that only comes to one at late hours when one should otherwise be sleeping. But I am not sleeping, cannot be sleeping, instead stopped by an idea, then more ideas, and more after that, each one losing something to the next and the next, but one keeps coming back, keeps fighting its way, and it has to do with the triumph of hope over experience, and no, those are not my words, but I feel they transcend the lips of the human who spoke them, like all words do at one time or another, and don’t do, because without those lips where would our lovely words be? I am stealing them, carelessly, and I am not stealing them. But neither matters much when one considers this idea, stares at those words, observes them, instead of sleeping, because observing, even the observation of words in an otherwise dark room, because that is part of one’s job, part of my job, part of what I like doing, what I will continue doing, and so we have Hope and Experience in what appears to be, and in reality actually is, an endless struggle. It is the same struggle we find in Future and Past. We have what we know, or think, will happen. Then we have what we hope, or perhaps believe, will happen. And they fight, they fight, they fight, and make us think and think and think until we lock up, close down, stand in place with a frozen still beating still warm heart. Perhaps it is reckless to stomp out what we call the wisdom that comes with experience. But now I see that it must be done, I see we must make more room for hope, not hope in the vague sense of the word, not hope in something we can’t see, though maybe we can’t, hope in something that will actually become tangible eventually, and perhaps everything important becomes tangible eventually, like the sun here in Korea and back home. It sets on the past, always, over and over again, but that light – that light always returns even though one day we know it won’t. And all the same it touches us. Warms our faces. That light.

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Never is the city as peaceful

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I remember the dark and the quiet, the country roads, the back roads, those long stretches where the only light comes from the occasional set of headlights coming toward you in the distance. In these places there are no streetlights. Though the landfill is lit up some, and the Farmer’s Market looks decorated for Christmas, but these, like the drive home from Palgong Mountain at night, are exceptions.

I had forgotten about this, forgotten how peaceful driving home at night on those roads can be, forgotten how lonely they can make you feel, forgotten how if you’re not careful you could almost fall asleep while driving, lost somewhere in the middle of what seems like an endless road to nowhere. And I’d forgotten that nowhere is usually where you end up.

Or maybe I was always wrong about that. Look where I am. I remember too the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks through the night – always through, never during. Those trains broke the night in half, not with their speed but with their magnitude. I have yet to see, let alone hear, a train in Korea with such presence and power. And now as I lay in my dark and quiet room I miss the sound of trains, the warning lights, flashing, as the arm comes down, even the waiting.

*

As I sat in the passenger seat of my co-worker’s car, I tried to capture the darkness. It was too dark. We drove on for some time before we reached the city, even before we came across another car. There were no street lights, only the outline of the mountain. I needed some light – some sound, perhaps – and I got it, but I still wasn’t able to capture what I remember.

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Colorful Chilsung on Ice

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The day turned out to be what I would call pleasant. I went ice skating with the fourth grade, hundreds of kids, I don’t know for sure how many, dressed in gloves, mittens, hats, coats, dressed as polar bears. We walked in long lines for about for thirty minutes to the indoor skating rink. I learned how to say stop in Korean, I used it on two students who were walking behind me, it worked, but I can’t remember it now. Starts with a g sound. To my ears, it’s a g sound, but really the sound is somewhere between g and k, somewhere between and lost to my ears, not at all tuned to this language. At the skating rink, I learned a few more Korean words and I practiced a phrase I learned the day before, all while sipping cha. I like cha, especially in the fall and winter, and I’m supposed to be able to say that, that being  I like cha, in Korean, but I can’t remember the English spelling, I can’t visualize the English equivalent, those words that look all mixed together, words not really words but letters that represent sounds, sounds that if not produced exactly how Koreans produce them will take you to the wrong destination while in a taxi, or to a blank look on your Korean friend’s face, leaving her saying, What? What? It’s baffling sometimes, this language, being here, walking thirty minutes with hundreds of students to an ice skating rink, but as you can see, my days still end in something that I would call pleasant, even when most of it was spent in a haze, me trying to adapt, adapting.

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