Category Archives: narrative

Coffee Shop

One night, after working out at the gym, I walk into the newly opened coffee shop nearby in search of fresh fruit juice. The lights are dim, and the chairs are hanging upside-down, legs in the air, off the tables big enough for only two or four people. Two women, one old enough to take the role of the mother, the other young enough to play the daughter, pop theirs heads up from behind the counter. I stumble for words. Because I’m in Korea and I think they won’t understand me. After a moment, I say, “You’re closed? Finished?” Synonyms help, and Koreans seem to be more familiar with the word “finished.” But the women give no answer. I glance around the small room, ready to leave, then I see the young boy sitting on the only chair with its legs in the proper place at the table near the window and door, where I’m standing. A workbook lies open in front of him. He’s 10 or 11 years old and doing homework at 10:30 at night while his family closes up shop. His doing homework this late is normal here, so normal I’d never think twice about it. He looks up at me and says with the confidence of a native English speaker, “Yes. Finished.” The women behind the counter smile and laugh quietly. I smile, too, and say to him, “Thank you. Bye.” As I turn to leave, the mother says, “Annyeonghi ga-seyo.”

No fresh fruit juice, but I walk home in the cold, grinning all the same.

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I am waiting for the subway to Anjirang Station. I am waiting at the Chilsung Market Station. An old woman is walking down the stairs backwards, her body hunched over, one hand on the railing, her head curled into her chest, watching every step. Old women like this work in the markets, selling fruits, vegetables, and fish. They walk with their backs in a horizontal line, the only generous comparison: the sun setting over the horizon of an ocean. The colors blending, finding their way into the deep wrinkles on the faces of these women as they stand in the sand the sun setting over them. When the sun goes under, everything goes dark. The woman is waiting for the subway going toward Ansim Station. She is waiting at the Chilsung Market Station. I stand upright. I lean against the wall. She stands with herself parallel to the ground. A light shines from the tunnel, and the train screeches past us and comes to a stop. The woman and I are on opposite ends. I can only imagine her as I am imagining her now. The doors slide open. People come out or they don’t. The woman and I walk into the subway car. She will get a seat in the elderly passenger area, and if she doesn’t someone will give up his or her seat for her. This is the most likely thing to happen. And I believe this is out of respect rather than out of pity. She may take the seat, or she may refuse it and tell the person to sit back down. In that case, probably no one will take it. The subway arrives in Anjirang. I’ve lost track of the woman. I get off, walk forwards up the stairs, scan my subway card and exit. An hour or so passes. I have done what I came to do. I am back on the subway. I am back at the Chilsung Market Station. I exit the subway like everyone else does: The doors open, people get off, walk forwards up the stairs, or take the escalator (I have never seen anyone walk backwards on an escalator), swipe subway cards, pass through the gate, find your exit and exit up the stairs onto the street. On the street, I see bright words and lights and a cross against the dark sky. Everything has gone dark, except the people and this quiet city. I am walking home. The market is closed, but people are still out, eating and drinking outside. Meat barbequing in the middle of tables. Pork and garlic and onions wrapped in lettuce. Green soju bottles. The bright lights of this side of Daegu. I am walking home.


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?


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?


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.