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The Korea Documents, Segment 2

Here’s a link to the first, much shorter installment, in case you missed it:



This might be my nineteenth consecutive hour of sitting. I could have received a month’s worth of bad news if necessary. Starred in nineteen different episodes of “To Catch A Predator.”

Take a seat.

My legs have searched for creative new methods of resting in accordance with the ground: soles down and out, ankles cross or separating, knees bent out of shape; but they (the legs) are beginning to repeat themselves. A tick, of sorts, in nervous anticipation. What are they anticipating? What is this syndrome? These legs are not restless, but gorged with rest. Their movement is futile – a prisoner eating heartily from his tray of slop to keep good health so that he may continue to serve his sentence.

I stand and walk only down jetways, terminals toward identical seats in other planes. There is no respectable work for legs on the modern traveler, unless they peek out from underneath mini skirts and pong the airplane isles, escorting liquid carts for unslakeable men. The seat has become the icon of travel, the logo for movement. In my seat I leaf through magazines with visible fingerprint bouquets on the covers, looking at pictures of men sitting in the totality of noise cancelling headphones during their near supersonic flights, men lounging poolside with embellished glasses of college hunch punch in Singapore – their only companions succinct, emboldened statements about luxury in flight and accommodation. I sit and think and read. Drinking as many free beers as offered. Walking (stumbling) down the isle in retreat to the restroom as the plane moves onward, the isle very much a treadmill. The vessel itself continues to pursue the speed of sound while everyone inhabits an insular space despite canned sardine proximity, earphones like race horse blinders, nodding their heads to inaudible elevator music that will regain its true volume once we descend.

Despite the illusion of stasis, there has been movement in this marathon. Atlanta>Phoenix>San Francisco>Seoul isn’t a matter of marking a globe with a Sharpie, drawing lines from brailed blot to brailed blot as the globe sits, orb-like, in your lap. I know this. Yet I don’t have much experience to prove it. The paltry amount of physical effort I’ve placed into a transcontinental journey – a journey in which I’ve moved from one point of the world to its global binary (Atlanta and Daegu are sister cities) – is worthy of consideration. I’ve yet to lose my breath due to overexertion, and I haven’t inhaled outdoor air since the taxi exhaust fumes I caught walking into Hartsfield-Jackson. Instead, I’ve been contained throughout, shuttled, confined to the air conditioning vents of airports and airplanes. The only seeking I’ve done has been in search of a seat – a free chair in an airport terminal, or a matching of my paper ticket’s letter-number combination to its coordinating symbols stamped above an airplane seat. Forget the intellectual complexities of deciphering a foreign language; my need for the English alphabet hasn’t extended past the letter E. How am I supposed to teach the full alphabet to middle school students?

But, for whatever reason, I believe this passive sitting to be travel. My proof: while I’ve resided mostly above the clouds – the blue-white sky below like a placid swimming pool disturbed by carving hands – whenever I’ve returned to civilization, the people have been progressively different in appearance and language. Anthropological evidence gathered from controlled environments implies that I’m no longer a part of the same culture in which I began. I’m in Korea, which is possibly neighbored by San Francisco. If Korea exists, then I am here.

The airport doesn’t count as having visited a nation, despite the repeated bragging and enumeration of your pro-layover friend. But I’m not at the airport. I was at the airport an hour ago, when I purchased a bus ticket to East Daegu, dialed some incorrect numbers on a pay phone that connected me with alien voices, and had this conversation (my first) with a Korean stranger before remembering that I’m not the first Anglo to visit the country, and that international airports typically hire English-speaking employees who are willing to bail you out:


Yeah. I bought a bus ticket, but I’m not quite sure where the bus is. (Display ticket) And I need to call my school and let them know when I’ll be arriving in Daegu.

Daegu? Taxi (phonetically, tack-shee). Something in Hangul. Follow me.

No, I already have a bus ticket. I think. (Look at ticket; no comprehension) Although maybe I bought the wrong bus ticket. Maybe the bus station is somewhere else. They didn’t mention that in the handout. (Reach into backpack for handout)

No bus-uh. Taxi. This way. (Looks at ticket stub) No. Something in Hangul. Taxi.

Do I need to take a taxi to the bus station? Wait, do you drive a taxi? How personal are your motives for helping me?

Come. This way. (Hand motion)

Are you offering guidance or misdirection?

(Hand motion)

I’m going to search this way. Thank you for your help.

Which didn’t turn out to be help. The all-tooth smiling girls behind the Information desk helped. They saved me from wasting emperor coins in the pay phone by using their personal phones to call numbers I’d jotted on the back of a Wal-Mart receipt. The girls are the reason I’m once again sitting – on a bus now – heading to Daegu with some muffled telephone voice aware of my projected arrival time.

The bus, like American Greyhounds but decorated with sharper, more violent symbols of instruction (only one character in Hangul is rounded, and it typically stands in for a blank space; our alphabet is soft by comparison), departs at the kind of pace where you can count the wheel rotations beneath the floorboards. The driver makes an announcement in his native tongue over the bus’s PA system. I nod in miscomprehension, hoping that body language is translingual, and that other riders will notice.

All of the bus’s other inhabitants respond by staring into their cell phone screens. I look out my curtained window, a different kind of screen, a different kind of spectacle. I am officially in Korea, outside of the airport. It’s sunset, which ancient aphorisms have implied takes place only in the West. The sky’s colors are sickly gray, green, as opposed to home’s vibrant palette combinations of yellow, red, and blue. The hue is too similar to that of the land, like the sky is simply a continuation of the landscape, missing the shaded distinction made in Western culture, where an enjoyable sunset is half sky, half shadowed land.

The bus moves along a bridge, body of water unseen, and through the vehicle’s curtained frames, in the dying crepuscular light, I catch my first glimpses of Asia, of East, of big Other. The landscape is not European. It is American, in that the interstate system provides similar views of concrete, industrial fields, metal signs, vegetation that prefers anonymity. There might be a golf course in the distance on the passenger side. I tend to confuse them with barren wastelands, though. I note what I believe to be a rice paddy, just another crop, just another field bordering the road. It all seems so bleak – likely a consequence of the time of day. I realize expectations of verdant, anthropomorphic mountains and cityscapes with seizure-inducing neon are unrealistic while traveling on a system of deliberate expressways. The whole of Korea is not contained within this single exposure in time, nor within this interstate panorama. I’ve yet to see the country, and not simply because of the fading light.

The darker it becomes, the wider my eyes open, like apertures adjusting to the setting, hoping to capture some striking image before the day dies. The sun recedes completely on the landscape’s hairline. Bus passengers continue to engage electronics, making constellations out of cell phone screens inside the bus’s dark atmosphere. My purpose remains to absorb, to experience. I take glimpses wherever I can get them, as most passengers have drawn curtains that partially obstruct my view, not out of malice, but out of a basic flaw in bus design where windows are never sized to be flush with each personal seating area, often just lengthy enough to bleed over into the area behind each seatback, causing environmental perspective to be a shared experience (public travel tends to be a string of compromises). You may view someone else’s visual end, but never your own; it lies somewhere behind you.

Creased, vermillion curtains have been drawn by passengers to the front and back of me, and thus, vicariously, I have partially drawn my own curtains. I pull a lever and recline in my chair to better view the nighttime scenery through my allotted foot of window space. My God, the sitting.

I search for something of meaning past the initial gravel shoulders illuminated by the expressway, and the total darkness of the middle distance. For some stretches, the middle distance has become the foreseeable future – that of total darkness and mystery – but for other stretches, far away buildings can be seen, not necessarily the buildings themselves, but their lighted components: windows sporadically plotted and illuminated along a skyscraper’s X and Y axes, lamped parking lots and side streets, the flickering neon of a business sign’s sloped characters. Recurring more frequently than any of these more capitalist forms of light, however, are electric red crosses, beacons of neon salvation, sitting isolated and tall and flush with the skyline. They adorn either the roofs of hospitals or churches, one of those habitats for sick souls.

The crosses appear frequently enough that they become landmarks by which to mark one’s progress, replications of north stars, reassured guidance for any wanderer. Strange, in a mostly atheistic country. They burn in a very modern way, the crosses, with an intensity that can only be powered by an extension cord transporting 100 watts of electricity, not sparked flint. For those bus passengers whose minds don’t wander, but rest, the electric crosses serve as a sort of ubiquitous nightlight, each bus window frame threaded through the mind’s projector quickly enough, so that the crosses appear like a single, static image.

Repeated exposure has inoculated me against their power as well. I retreat from the lights into the shadows of my busmates’ indifferent, insular haven, into the unidentifiable space of a dark bus interior. I could be riding with my team back from a Thursday night high school soccer match. I could be taking the 2 a.m. shuttle back to my apartment with my college formal date dozing on my shoulder. The motor hums its monotonous lullaby.

I could be asleep.

For how long, I don’t know. The bus is no longer moving. The driver stands at the front and mimics a wishbone. Everyone else begins standing, shuffling, moving along the isle toward the door. No exceptions. Have we already arrived in Daegu? The other passengers’ bags remain in their seats as placeholders; none have taken them along. I part my curtains, look out my window and observe: other parked buses in a disturbingly straight line; a single building front with a continuous glass façade divided into appropriated sections; a large kiosk in the parking lot, possibly two, under an amber waterfall of sodium light, peddling stuffed animals and cheap clothing and God knows what else.

A rest stop. We are at a rest stop. Perfect. I pull my chair up from its reclined position, fix my hair, and prepare for some rest.

About fifty steps from my bus, my sanctuary, my wheeled domicile, my rolling rock, I turn back and gaze at the canted row of buses, only to realize that I can’t identify which bus is mine. All buses at the rest stop are parked at identical angles, spaced identically beside one another, sporting identical bus features. There is, of course, a piece of paper with the final destination posted to each bus’s front window, clearly distinguishing them apart. The destinations on these pieces of paper are also written in Hangul, and me attempting to read the Korean language at this time would be akin to me trying to read a stapler. My alphabet is no good here. The language I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in, the English degree that landed me this job teaching at a private academy in Korea – both are useless. I consider the despair of my position: a satellite view of the lone Waygook standing in the center of a cement parking lot, bordered by more expanses of cement, a third person placed in someone else’s first person narrative, the wind as his language, his baggage and forms of identification entombed in a bus he cannot identify. But weariness, with its apathetic haze, defends me from any kind of panic. In perfect imitation of my drunken bar persona, with the same phrase I’ve repeated so often as catalyst for thoughtless action, I say Fuck It and walk toward the restroom to take a pee, leaving my problem somewhere behind me.

The men’s restroom is an introductory lesson in symmetry. Full-length urinals, like jaws dropped to the floor, are molded into the walls, stationed side-by-side sans dividers on every dormitory-white wall, utilizing the room’s perimeter space with German efficiency. Thirty-something urinals, is the immediate assessment. Stalls are clustered in an island in the middle of the room. The only wall space not devoted to yawning porcelain belongs to a single sink by the entrance. The restroom is echo-inducing empty tonight, but I imagine a time – perhaps in an alternate universe – where I walk into the restroom and each of the thirty-something urinals is occupied by business-suited men in dystopian conformity, men of similar height with identical hair (color and volume in Korea are pretty consistent; no male-pattern baldness), all looking alike with their backs turned to me, all hitting the flush handles simultaneously – fist springing off diving board – inducing this roaring, black hole sound of suction, and as I stand in the doorway, waiting, they begin to turn around and reveal their faces…

I choose one of the urinals at the back left and make my first contribution to the Korean system of waste.

The most accurate description of the lighting and desolation of the rest stop at this point in the evening, as I stroll along the sidewalk in front of the main building, is that it immediately evokes the image of Hopper’s Nighthawks, where the subjects of the painting are contemporary Koreans rather than 1940’s American businessmen in fedoras, hovering alone over bowls of reptilian noodles and extraterrestrial vegetables that are accurately displayed in terrifyingly magnified detail on pictured panels above the cafeteria counter. I gaze into the lit windowfront, but from a distance – no breath cataracts – as if the cafeteria and its patrons, the curly-haired ladies behind the counter wiping down surfaces for the night, actually are contained within a painting – an image for which I paid a substantial sum in words, and I feel as if I won’t be speaking any time soon due to my linguistic insolvency.

To either side of the cafeteria, lights have dimmed and movement has ceased, as the rest stop’s other establishments have closed for the night. The only anomalies are a snack vendor haloed in halogen, peddling various fried geometry a few doors down, and the sulfurous glow of a single bulb at the parking lot kiosk, where a man is drawing curtains around displayed items, his prizes, without audience or applause. The lighting is that of dreams and nightmares, where points of interest are spotlighted in fallow light, and forgotten surroundings remain in their shadows, yet the two seem to bleed into one another like the shoreline and the sea.

I follow children back toward the correct bus, children whose Premiere League soccer jerseys I became acquainted with during the first half of the ride, young thin boys with full heads of hair and Buddy Holly spectacles and fistfuls of candy, chatting chaotically in a manner only the youth can comprehend (as well as with an energy only the youth can maintain on this lengthy of a trip). As I walk down the bus isle, I bury my gaze somewhere in the floorboards, not wanting to be suspected, although I’m unsure what it is I’m guilty of. My backpack occupies my seat, and for the first time I become aware of my similarity to an object, how similar our purpose and spatial inhabitance are while being transported, with foreign forms communicating around us. While one sits in the floor and the other in a chair, we are – nonetheless – a couple. One couldn’t exist without the other.

The driver conducts some version of a head count before the bus lurches back onto the expressway among squinting, blinking headlights. Cogs turn in my head and under my feet. In times of physical idleness, I allow my brain to embark on its own journey. Perhaps this allowance is more of a submission; I submit to my brain as it holds me hostage. Having already encountered one red herring, my brain begins to wander toward future bus stops and hitches in the ride, questioning the validity of the directions on my travel company’s printed e-mail, which remains gripped and crumpled in my hands. I was told by my travel agent to stay with the bus until the very end of the journey, when the bus drives no more.

The instructions seem easy enough.

But what if the ultimate destination is a storage warehouse one hundred kilometers south of Daegu, and the penultimate destination – the place where every passenger aside from the driver exits the bus – is where I should actually get off, and the driver fails to notice me sitting several rows back as he continues toward that desolate storage warehouse that possibly doubles as a sweatshop that is an equal opportunity employer – especially when non-Korean speaking foreigners walk through its doors just basically begging to be chained to a sewing machine – while back at East Daegu station, my sole opportunities for communication, my would-be coworkers, scan the crowd futilely for my Western face? Or what if the majority of passengers disembark at an earlier stop that seems to surely be my stop as well, and the herd mentality carries me onto the anonymous Korean streets, luggage in tow, where I tentatively wander in search of a hotel – the possibility of negotiating a room for the night with a credit card (my only available form of payment at this point) looming over me – eventually forced to sleep fetally on my suitcase if I cannot find a hotel, being nothing in the middle of nowhere?

I have always traveled because I dislike control. I hold my backpack tightly to my chest and remind myself of this.

Unfamiliar feelings of panic are dismissed, but not forgotten. My brain twitches from inefficient overuse – sputtering, leaking foul thoughts. I would normally grab a bottle of alcohol off the shelf to lubricate the machine, or even flood the machine to shut it down altogether, but I have no alcohol, no shelves. I do have darkness and the bus’s steady baritone. I resort to sleep instead. Sleep as crutch. Sleep as escape. I go under and let the bottom of my brain function for a while. Flip the brain like a flapjack, let the underside do the bubbling, the breathing, while the top hides underneath against the warmth until all is smoothed out.

I awake at various times, when the bus stops or when the driver turns on the interior lights, characters moving in and out of my perception. But this is all so surreal that these disturbances seem like routine installments of my dream sequence. During one stop, the interior lights remain lit. All passengers stand and grab bags, engage cell phones. The bus driver sits silently in his seat. I feel like he’s spotlighting the area for a reason. The only two passengers who were sitting behind me now file past. I linger in my seat, observing. Then to my left, a voice:

Everybody must get off here.

A girl speaks to me, and I understand.

Is this East Daegu station?

Yes, this is Daegu. The bus stops here.

Some teachers from my school are supposed to meet me at Daegu station.

This is Daegu station. Everybody must get off here.

She smiles. I fall into line behind her. I am the last to leave the bus. A Korean man and woman – both in their thirties – stand right outside the doorway facing the bus, barely allowing room for exit, as if overly eager to board. I seem to be who they are looking for.

Are you Griffin?

I must be. I am the only one who responds to their prompt. All other fourteen passengers have already filed past without correctly answering the riddle. Or perhaps I am the first to be addressed, the question itself obviously rhetorical, mainly just a convenient way to greet the only foreigner on the bus, to catalyze conversation. My co-workers tell me their names. It will take me nearly a week to actually learn them. It rains lightly – a leak in the sky. I have two suitcases under the bus (year’s worth of clothing and toiletries), which my co-workers help me remove and roll. The car waits only a few meters away, headlights on, windshield wipers waving both fingers no.

Fitting both suitcases into the trunk is physically impossible – my bags are typical rectangular prisms impregnated with clothes, displaying sagging belly protrusions of pants and ties that refuse to contract or suck it in in order to squeeze through the trunk’s maw. I stand back in American embarrassment as my co-workers attempt to angle them into the space anyway. One suitcase ultimately rests next to me in the backseat. Two rear passenger seats, both occupied by objects; two unused seatbelts, neither having a life to save.

My male co-worker informs me from shotgun that my apartment isn’t ready, so I’ll be sleeping on the floor of a fellow Westerner for an indeterminate number of days, until the teacher I replace completes her contract and moves out of her (my) apartment. My male co-worker tells me the Westerner’s name, but it doesn’t stick. I’m still attempting to recall the names of the two people driving me. I can remember only that they are phonetically similar. My female co-worker drives. The male attempts small talk, asking where I’m from and all remotely tangential questions regarding work and residence. I attempt to return them in a kind of conversational volley. However, I have no energy for sport. I am short-winded. I resort to backseat silence, while the two of them chat back and forth in their language, their sentences typically ending with an inflection that implies inquisition.

I view the streets in several dimensions. In the window, they bleed with the rain; washed out neon from building facades and the smeared headlights of passing cars form a Pollock-like lattice over a clear canvas. Out of the front windshield: more definitive shapes. Pedestrians are sparse shadows. Every other building appears to be a restaurant with a half-lit awning. Many of them are labeled with animate writing if not cartoons, animation itself. Some recognizable Western fast food chains take priority on street corners – mostly the golden arches. Bags of trash are omnipresent, but not a single trash can. The streets seem to be neighbored by one continuous façade, divided as if by architectural pencil mark into grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants, repeat. Back streets are characterized by their redundancy.

A turn onto the city’s main street reveals some animate architecture, fashionable building forms composed of shifting lights rather than definitive, concrete angles, but also angled concrete buildings of multiple stories with a separate businesses on each story; local and international name-brand clothing stores whose building structure is essentially an enlarged logo of that brand; a much wider main street with four or five lanes on each side and numerous crosswalks; cars (75% of which are taxis) speeding and stopping while honking in frustration at their confinement; young men on mopeds weaving in and out of lanes, sometimes improvising and riding on the sidewalk when traffic is unbearable. Back inside our car: the movement of raindrop shadows over the leather interior, passing like silent spotted film over my arms and legs. Silence and light.

Everything outside seems so foreign and large and unfamiliar, the way schoolyards are when you’re a kid, only to find them small, navigable, pitiable, when you return as an adult. I expect to be an adult among Daegu’s schoolyard in a few weeks.

The car veers onto a side street and stops before a four-story concrete building block on stilts. A few cars are parked under the block, around the stilts. The cars are mostly black and of a luxury manufacturer that doesn’t appear to be German. Without much explanation, my co-workers exit the car into the rain – as do I – and start pulling suitcases from the trunk and back seat hurriedly. People are eager to avoid water, even in its most gentle form. We drag the suitcases like a third, lame appendage through the puddles, inside the building, and lug them arduously up three flights of stairs. One of my co-workers raps abruptly on a heavy wooden door at the top. We wait. A Midwestern college guy in a Michigan State hoodie opens the door as if the visit is unexpected. He doesn’t look me in the eyes. My Korean co-worker introduces me, once more telling me my host’s name, which I immediately forget. I’ve heard the name twice now, yet my brain has nothing to show for it. A mandatory Western male handshake ensues. My Korean co-workers back out of the apartment quickly, as if trying to beat the crowd at the conclusion of a major sporting event.

I slide off my shoes at the threshold and leave them by the door before walking inside, observing the national policy of respect. If we kiss the ground on which we walk, it should at least be devoid of grass and fecal matter. The kitchen, the living room, the bathroom are all kind of one room in the apartment. A sliding glass partition separates the bedroom, which is about the size of a bed. The guy with his college sweatshirt and his mid-20’s looks stands beside me. A silence awaits interruption. I feel an immediate pressure to prove my worth, make a quip, display experience with sports and girls. No one has placed this pressure on me. I just automatically assume that everyone wearing a college sweatshirt is older and cooler than me, despite having spent four years in college myself, during which time I was sometimes (but rarely) old and cool. I even wore sweatshirts.

My host stands in one spot while giving me a tour of the apartment, pointing to all the important amenities, including the bathroom that is also a shower (standard for Korea; again, the brochure had informed me). He asks if I want to go out. I reply hesitantly, as I am exhausted from a transcontinental journey. He mentions he is also tired, bids me goodnight, and walks immediately behind the bedroom partition. I don’t think he disrobes before crashing onto the bed. My temporary roommate’s feet show from behind the sliding bedroom door like the cadaverous subject of a Wallace Stevens poem, hanging just off the cliff of the mattress. I change into gym clothes and arrange myself on the borrowed air mattress in the center of the living room. I squirm for comfort while considering the totality of my journey. The mattress slowly begins to deflate under me. Lying supine, too tired to observe symbolism, I sink into sleep with it.




  1. Pingback: The Korea Documents, Segment 3 | the mind is a terrible thing of waste - March 31, 2014

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