It's like The Shawshank Redemption. All the English teachers here are chiseling their days into the walls, pacing like caged pumas up and down the streets, chain smoking, tunneling through the floor with rock hammers by moonlight. I, myself, have a d-day countdown running on my cell phone: 271 days until I fly away. I am not homesick and life is not even that unbearable here, but it would be silly for me to deny it: Korea is a stepping stone.
I did not come to Korea because I am a kimchi connoisseur, because I enjoy being stared and pointed at, because I have a penchant for hostile languages or because I thought second-hand radiation might do me some good. I am here unabashedly for the money. But I want the money so I can travel, so that I can become poor again, so that I can work, so that I can travel, so that I can become poor once again, so that I can keep growing and dying and growing, so that I can keep moving without ever having to stay still, all that idealistic bullshit. That bullshit is my plan and it will not become reality. Something will get in the way: I will get pregnant, my kidneys will spontaneously burst, my nose will fall off, my ears will melt down the sides of my head, I will get the guinea worm. But the universe is a large place; I would at least like to get to know the planet I'm stuck on.
Starting with the Oprah restaurant two blocks from my apartment.
Daegu is divided into specialized districts with a trillion specialized shops selling the exact same junk for the exact same price. So on Sunday night, when the Bostonian and I wandered downtown for all-you-can-eat at a foreigner bar, we first had to pass through a pet shop district, a used tuba district, a Protestant Church district, a wig district, and a district of boarded-up windows, scattered plastic bags full of ball bearings, and discordant faraway piano tinkles - en route to the foreigner bar district, where foreigners go to sniff each other's asses, and drink.
The buffet was packed and buzzing with the hysteria of a hundred human beings united in a quest to eat themselves to death for fifteen bucks a head. After finishing our fourth course, the Bostonian and I decided to sample some of the insect cuisine, one bug apiece, with lemons for chasers just in case. It was a brownish bug, maybe some sort of larva, football-shaped, a chewy morsel with a dash of crustacean pizzazz. I had just about choked the thing down when a blue-shirted Korean man at the table next to me collapsed and went into a seizure.
I've always imagined my moment of truth to be a dramatic or at least somewhat distracting affair, drawing some concerned glances and maybe a paramedic or two. But this poor bastard just lay on the floor writhing around for five minutes while his friends sat with their beers stalled en route to their mouths. The guy must have stopped breathing, so the hero of the bunch felt obligated to kneel down and give a few halfhearted chest compressions. Meanwhile, a drunk expat across the room stood up and performed an impeccable reenactment of the "Da Bears" SNL skit, pounding on his chest, hacking and pantomiming the projectile dislodgement of a Philly cheese steak, a hot dog, or something.
The bug was still on my tongue so I swallowed it and reached for a lemon. A man in an orange jumpsuit parted the gathering crowd with a stretcher. A tense but mostly impatient silence weighed heavy on the buffet as people waited for it to become socially acceptable to go back for more cocktail wienies. At the bar, a Korean was bellowing without using his honorific forms because the weissbier was kaput.
Finally, the seizing man ceased seizing and rose to his feet. I fought that primal American spectator's instinct to give him a standing O, realizing morbidly that he could collapse again at any second and die. He staggered around a bit, let out a few probably incoherent words (doubly incoherent because I don't know Korean), looked around, scratched his head, and bowed ashamedly to the onlooking crowd, deciding by default that he was terribly drunk. His two friends grabbed him by the arms and grumbled as they dragged him out of the bar. Your worst enemy is your own nervous system (Orwell, 43).
The Bostonian had not finished his bug.
"Eat up." I pointed a chopstick.
"Fuck you," he said.