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The Korea Documents, Segment 3

This will link you to the other two essays, in case you want to read them in sequence:


Why have I failed to notice before that neckties are so obviously phallic? Hours of English class analysis of swords and skyscrapers, yet nothing concerning male fashion. The most prominent male accessory would be something that simply dangles straight down, hangs, in no way enhancing the costume, externalizing the private as spectacle.

My social noose has yet to be tied. A striped skinny tie hangs about my neck, wider end sitting lower, as if size implies weight. I made sure to learn how to perform this career man’s ritual before leaving home. I spent an entire college career without knowing how to knot a tie, keeping a small collection of pre-knotted silk looped around clothes hangers in my apartment’s closet, hidden behind winter coats and anything of bulk. None of the ties was formal enough when the moment of need actually arrived, though. Memories of asking a fellow customer in a Kohl’s department store to tie the thing for me less than an hour before I was supposed to pick up my formal date.

My father attempted to teach me the process at all stages of my life, even the day before I departed for Korea. The lesson on this day unfolded like it had every other time, including eighth grade Elite Night at my high school cafeteria: I would hand him a tie I had bought out of idealism rather than pragmatism; cringe at the staticky sound of his fingertips – smooth as burlap – unraveling threads as they (the fingertips) fought against the silk grain; pass in and out of consciousness while standing beside him in front of the decorative living room mirror as he took about three tries to remember a ritual he had spent a lifetime performing, watching him move and arrange his hands and then struggle to translate those hands to someone’s neck not his own; anticipate the moment of capitulation when he would just leave the thing knotted and place it over my head in accolade, and I’d assure him that I had retained everything he had taught me.

So when he finished his meticulous, hands-on explanation in front of the mirror that week before my departure, passing the tie back to me with the ritualistic pride of father enlightening son, I thanked him, went to my room, and watched an instructional video on YouTube – the same medium from which I learned how to change a car tire and please girls.

I play through the YouTube video in my mind, frame by frame, as I begin the tying process in front of a microwave oven’s reflective glass in the apartment. Over, up, through, around, left, forward. Like a video game combination. I must achieve Double Windsor.

It’s Saturday, and I was told last night through the car’s wash of color and language that the director of my academy would like to meet me today for introductions, despite it being an off day for Western teachers. Johnny (I learned his name via received Facebook friend request…instead of just asking him to repeat it) is in charge of leading me to the academy, and he assured me before stepping into the shower room this morning that a buttoned shirt and tie would be necessary for the encounter. I have yet to learn at this point in my narrative to refuse all of Johnny’s social advice.

Johnny has plans for my first Korean lunch, and with only an hour to spare before the casual meet-and-greet, he checks his wristwatch and encourages me to ignore the fact that seams on dress sock toes should never be exposed. From my unsutured suitcase I grab a jar of strawberry jam I purchased as an introductory gift for my boss, stuff it in a Christmas giftbag and stow it in the crook of my arm, leave the apartment following Johnny downstairs with shoelaces still untied. Our conversations thus far haven’t consisted of anything substantial (mostly interrogations from me), but I’ve engaged him enough to discover that any social intimidation on my part was premature. That is to say, I’m not a superior, socially adroit human being who emits an air of Fonzie-like coolness, but Johnny possesses certain social habits that would politely be described as odd, habits that are even noticed and remarked upon by native Koreans. For instance, he is unable to process humor, particularly when someone is being sarcastic with him (this may not be such a bad thing; I’m not sure sarcasm would add anything to his life). He is incredibly earnest in all of his statements, and looks back at you with this same earnestness when you make an off-hand joke, his eyes flashing Does not compute, which causes you to feel like you’ve said something horribly offensive and redden at your inhumanity.

But even straightforward, irony-free socializing is abnormal with Johnny. When you ask him a question or make a statement that begs a response, there’s an eerie lag (three Mississippi seconds, almost) between when you finish your statement and when Johnny responds to it, as if he speaks a different language, and your statement must first be filtered through an interpreter who resides inside of his skull. Other teachers at our academy will regard him as weird (again, not depicting myself as a saint; I make unkind comments about his mannerisms too), and I will eventually make a rough diagnosis of Asperger’s, without any personal experience in behavioral studies, because the Western mindset is kind of inherently diagnostic.

Johnny walks a pace and a half ahead of me. As my escort, he also wears dress clothing. I am tall, yet he is somehow taller, and his strides cause me to use more of my calf muscles than I typically care to employ on a leisurely stroll. He leads me from the side street of the apartment building, one block over, to the main street, where sound and wind seem to be accelerated by the current of traffic. “Noise pollution” is a popular topic of distaste among urban Koreans, and my first introduction to this phrase – as well as its true definition – comes on my first morning in the nation.

I was awoken this morning, air mattress a yoga mat, by the tinny sound of a voice filtered through a loudspeaker – the kind attached to ice cream trucks – as it rattled off local supermarket deals with the urgency of an auctioneer. The price of grapes and melons permeated the floors and walls of every apartment building like capitalism’s own Muslim morning adhan, no resident excluded from its preaching. I crawled to the window to observe, unsure whether my family’s much forewarned North Korean attack was commencing outside. A salesman stood in the bed of a slowly passing truck, as the driver was instructed to pretend the accelerator was his savior’s groin when applying pressure, cajoling the truck into crawling back and forth through the alley as civilians walked past, repeating the exercise to allow residents to jot down every proclaimed deal. The whole process took about thirty minutes – enough time to ensure everyone was awake and saving or had been saved.

Yet here by the main street, even the supermarket salesman’s voice would be lost in this cacophony. The four lanes on each side of the median never empty of cars or buses that plow straight ahead with insectile resolve, and these vehicles are even forced to allow others to enter from side streets to join the march when no real space is available, lanes often improvised. The vehicles are in constant motion, rarely lulling, traffic flowing steadily, so that motors roar rather than hum, a congregation’s chant rather than a crowd’s murmur. The mopeds I glimpsed last night are now clearly visible: all are mounted by food delivery boys following their own creeds, each boy with a lit cigarette protruding from his lips – sticking out through the helmet’s visor – while he gives his handle bars an Indian rug burn and bullies the bike into action. The delivery boys take advantage of their mopeds’ size by weaving between halted cars, helmets often forgotten or ignored, racing against an invisible deadline. Warm meals plated on actual china, covered with plastic wrap and paired with silverware, stacked harmoniously inside an insulated box on the back of the bike.* These mopeds and their jockeys are in constant movement, allergic to equilibrium, so whenever traffic reaches total stasis I am able to inspect the make and model of the mopeds more closely as the delivery boys veer their (motorized) vehicles off the road and onto the sidewalk in front of me, revving handlebars and weaving in and out of unblinking pedestrians along new, improvised delivery routes. I curse at the perpendicular puffs that trail behind them from cigarettes and exhaust pipes.

Although the main street is linear, flat, with an extensively clear view in both directions, the buildings that wait in line behind the sidewalk are visually chaotic. All buildings are either single story or multiple stories (up to seven), yet they’re arranged snuggly, sequentially, like crooked teeth, some having been grinded down to nubs, others long in the tooth and in need of renovation or removal. The multi-storied structures are the color of weathered concrete, with new businesses wedged on third, fourth, and fifth floors, other businesses possibly wedged in non-existent spaces between. The single-story numbers are shops reserved for internationally recognized retail (North Face, Adidas, Fila), as well as locally invented coffee shops that have sprouted and multiplied only in the past few years, an attempt to adopt (but eventually make a gross caricature of) the Western coffee shop fad, places romantically named Paris Baguette and DaVinci Coffee and Sleepless in Seattle and Hollys Coffee (sic).

Coffee – like milk (the majority of Koreans are lactose intolerant; the initial human gene hasn’t been bred out of them yet) – is a beverage totally foreign to Korea, so the shops are more of a social affectation for natives, and a tiny, artificial taste of home for Waygooks. Much of Western popular culture has invaded the area, to either accommodate Western visitors or pique the curiosity of locals. But, without the actual Western foundations to support it – if those foundations do indeed exist – the atmosphere feels more like a movie set, where the severance of supportive wooden beams would not only ruin the picturesque, movie-like environment you and the company have imagined for yourself, but also cause you to question your existence as a real individual rather than an imposter, an actor in reality. Your life would fall flat with the cardboard backdrop of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Johnny steers me inside a 7-Eleven. The store sells shelves of Korean and American junk food, including Cheetoh brand snacks that are shrimp flavored and clearly not manufactured by Frito Lay. I ask Johnny what we’re getting for lunch while extracting Won (cash) from the ATM.



Johnny doesn’t compute my word play. Perhaps he’s too clever. Sincerely.

“No, Donkas. It’s like…a fried pork cutlet. With gravy.”

“So you’re taking me to a Cracker Barrel?”

One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Miss…

“No it’s a Korean restaurant. They’re pretty common in the area. The donkas usually comes with a side of rice. You can even get the rice, like, wrapped in an egg if you want.”

Johnny’s blond hair stands up straight in the front, but is calmer in the back, towards the whorl. He resembles a highly-baked Gary Sinise who has clearly never smoked marijuana a day in his life (yet mysteriously disappears a couple of months later for an entire night, drinking alone downtown, leaving the academy’s newest teacher to whom Johnny is temporary host – as is S.O.P. – stranded on the stairwell, fortunately inside of the apartment building because of a remembered security code, sleeping on stairs, until Johnny appears at 4 a.m., unapologetic and uncomprehending of his social faux pas). His nose is beak-like, and – when associated with his mannerisms and walking style – completes Johnny’s image of a bird reincarnated as a human being.

He struts down the sidewalk in front of me, past the logos and coffee shops and occasional market, to a cafeteria-like restaurant that is open for 24 hours, essentially the Eastern equivalent of Waffle House. Like there, the menu here is also picture-centric. We smile dumbly inside the doorway, greet the workers, pronounce Anyongsayoh in a way that likely sounds like “hey-ya-low” to native ears. Johnny points to a picture on the wall and says “Donkas with cheez-uh” in a very American accent to the cashier. I do the same, except I pronounce the phrase with stereotypical Asian intonation, having learned from past travel experience that to say something in a comic, exaggerated accent for the region in which you are traveling is actually to pronounce it in a way that’s more understandable and correct to natives; you’ll do this repeatedly until you realize accents were never a joke in the first place.

Johnny pays for both of our meals in a welcoming gesture. I assure him that I’ll take care of the next lunch, but never do. We take opposing seats at a truncated cafeteria table. A worker from the restaurant (middle aged, female) brings us cups of broth similar to the soup served at “Japanese” steakhouses in the States, as well as a saucer loaded with Korea’s infamous spiced, fermented cabbage shreds – kimchi – paired with perfectly rotund, yellow, coloring book suns that I learn are actually pickled radishes. A glutton for punishment (or perhaps just a glutton), I sink my tines (the worker gave us forks rather than chopsticks, in anticipation) into one of the sunshines and pop it in my mouth. I endure the ensuing fifteen-second rainstorm in my mouth with stubborn, insistent chewing – deliberate chewing – attempting to acclimate my taste buds to the sour radish the way I did when adapting to the bitterness of my first beer (a Budweiser) as a 17-year-old. I’ll be binge-eating these things in no time.

Koreans customarily pick up a round of radish or pinch of kimchi with their chopsticks and eat it before and during meals, using the veggies as a basic appetizer and palette cleanser. Noticing that Johnny has ignored the pickled veggies, I ask him if he’s a fan of the traditional food here, sip my soup, wait for the translation.

“Eh, not really. Some of the fruits are good, but they’re expensive. Like, eight bucks for a bunch of grapes. There are these miniature melons, though, that kind of taste like cantaloupe and are relatively inexpensive.”

“What do you typically eat for lunch, then?”

“Usually Paris Baguette has this, like, one dollar hot dog thing. Or, just other forms of bread, croissants, bagels with cream cheese, muffins…”

Johnny seems to be concerned with budget and speaks with a mid-westerner’s matter-of-factness.

“…sandwiches, loaf pizza, donuts, chicken wraps, ham rolls, berry tarts…”

The waitress delivers two platters of donkas to our table, one of the few meals in Korea that isn’t meant to be shared by diners. It really is just a fried pork cutlet. In the American South, we would call it “chicken-fried pork.” Johnny cants his fork and saws into the meat – right elbow pumping like a piston – while itemizing Paris Baguette’s displayed baked goods. His open mouth spritzes the air with a mist of chewed pig flesh. I keep my mouth closed while chewing, more so to keep out foreign matter than to avoid being gauche. The donkas is tasty, sure, but it’s a comfortable, déjà-vu kind of tasty. I eat it with regret, disappointed that my first real Asian meal isn’t something more authentic. I’m not even wielding chopsticks. I plow my fork into the white rice as if it were a mound of mashed potatoes, manage to balance some meat on the same forkload, shovel it all into my mouth without distinction. Even the way I eat the food is routine.

I look up from my plate long enough to notice Johnny giving his watch a lot of attention and make quick work of the last few bites of my first supper. With a mouth full of food, I pull the 1,000-Won bills – still warm from the ATM’s entrails – out of my pocket and try to figure out what the proper amount for a tip might be, but Johnny informs me that leaving a tip isn’t customary in Korea; it’s even considered insulting to the workers. Something about pity and honor and the value of a job well done. I re-pocket the money, not wanting to insult anybody with additional income, perplexed at how money could ever be viewed as dishonorable, especially when it’s embossed with the profiles of such noble men.

Johnny heads out the restaurant door and back toward the direction from which we came, annulling any progress we made walking to the restaurant. We passed my new place of employment on our way to eat, Johnny having pointed inside the building’s open doorway to a gold-plated elevator, whose closed doors guarded against a scent of souring seafood that seemed to waft its way through my consciousness and into the building from the mounds of ice on which the seafood was piled next to the street. The building with golden elevator doors is one of the multi-storied concrete numbers, and Hanvit – the English academy – occupies the third through fifth floors. Now that we’re walking back toward it, about two blocks out, I can see the academy logo high up on the façade, beacon-like. To my left, on the curb lining the street, people serve as pedestrian fencing, squatting with blankets and newspapers spread out before them, roots and veggies and flowers and fruits and the occasional tub of still-kickin’ seafood arranged on the mats. Everything open, everything exposed, nothing preserved. I conceal my Christmas bag of strawberry jam in the crook of my right arm to avoid becoming any more of a solecism. To my right is a continuous façade of sterile, glass-enclosed retail, people inside who stand instead of squat, all of them either nearsighted or fashionable. A poster on the window tells me I can buy a pair of Converse for about the same price as three weeks’ worth of sidewalk pears and a squid. The sneakers cost only 60,000 Won; 1,000 Won is roughly equal to one American dollar, Johnny informs me, making my contracted salary of 2,000,000 Won per month suddenly less significant. The window glass sparkles artificially with the reflection of an outdoor sun.

We hang a right into the Hanvit building and wait on the elevator to lower itself while middle school students file past us, up and down the two flights of stairs, books in hand, often taking the stairs two at a time with an energy that should be illegal at Saturday school. Although Western teachers receive weekends off in appeasement of their five-day workweek upbringing, Korean students (and, consequently, Korean teachers) are still required to attend academies on Saturday, bringing the tally of their weekly educational misery to a total of six days. The students (children) live for Sunday, adulthood.

Elevator doors entomb Johnny and I. They’re gold on the inside, too. I straighten my tie and perform some kind of hair-combing action with my fingers, attempting to organize the wind’s whimsy. The elevator ascends with us trapped inside. Johnny stares straight ahead into the reflective panel, either at himself or through himself. The elevator stops moving and dings. I check all aspects of my appearance in the mirrored walls surrounding me – as will become a daily work ritual, a liturgical sacrifice to Narcissus – and step out through the parting elevator doors. The entrance to Hanvit is a reception area set off by glass doors. More gold, on the door handles, on the fringes, in the lettering of the hotel concierge desk. That’s the best way to describe the academy’s reception area of marbled floors and polished countertops and corded phones and professionally smiling faces: a five-star hotel lobby. Private academies, where education and commerce unite.

Girls behind the desk are uniformly dressed in pink blouses and navy skirts, heavily made-up, hair pulled into buns, pretty. They look like three identically dressed members of a girl group from the K-pop music video that I watched on TV this morning while Johnny was gargling with rubbing alcohol at the bathroom sink. I almost feel like I need to choose a favorite, to follow in tabloids, to swoon over, to place a poster of on my bedroom wall. The boss has already chosen a favorite – I am told – having flaunted his extramarital affair around the academy a month before I arrived via tickle fights, strict instructions to come see him in his office young lady, right this instant, and close the door behind you; outside of work, romantic trips to the DVD-room were prevalent.* He even bought her a pair of giant cashmere earmuffs that she exhibited for consecutive weeks inside the climate-controlled building.

She doesn’t wear earmuffs today. Neither do the other secretaries. The boss’s office is located extremely conveniently right next to the reception desk. If the door were open, he could look out and see what others who enter the reception area can’t: legs, midriffs, breasts – everything that’s concealed by the formidable desk behind which the girls sit. But the door isn’t open. Johnny informs the girls that the new American teacher has arrived to meet Boo Wong-jon Nim (boo being a title of respect, not degradation, here). I smile a starstruck smile at them. The girl sitting furthest from the door springs out of her chair lithely – like she’s being graded for the action – and scurries over to the large oak office door, in her skirt and blouse and pinned hair. She raps her knuckles on the door with the kind of force you would expect from her. A gruff voice from inside responds in Korean with a muffled, yet deliberate baritone; if the quote were typed on a computer, it would be typed in bold. She responds back in a soprano whose pitch seems to be fueled by its speed. I hear another voice of a different tenor, even more muffled, behind the door, beginning to speak harmony. The baritone speaks to the girl again. They exchange a few more phrases through the sealed oak as if speaking through a lidded coffin, and she scurries back to her seat before the door swings open.

The boss steps out. He’s taller than other men I’ve encountered so far in Korea. A full head of hair, shaggy, but well kept. The frames of his glasses are as black as his hair, and just as thick. Buddy Holly on performance enhancing drugs. They seem to belong on him. I imagine him sleeping and showering in them. He wears a short-sleeved dress shirt tucked into some smart chinos. Long-sleeved dress shirts don’t appear to be terribly popular here. Except with me and Johnny. They’re super popular with the me-Johnny demographic. The boss smiles and says something at the girls, hee-hawing, as they giggle in unified response. A smile that shows all of his teeth, top and bottom rows, which are the yellow of smokers’ teeth, but who am I to judge. His lips part from them as would a pack animal’s. He’s donkey-like. Some might call him a jackass.

Boo Wong-jon Nim retreats to his office, beckoning Johnny and I to follow. Inside are two more men, one whom I recognize as the co-worker from last night’s car ride. The other is shorter than everybody, grayer, tanner; he wears a suit jacket, but no tie (ties are also unpopular here) and paces antipodally like someone who thinks movement implies status. It might be his culture’s version of a carnivorous handshake. He stops exercising long enough to align himself with Boo. The bosses dip into an abbreviated bow and say hello in English. I say hi and bow, wait on the next course of action. Silence. Johnny is staring intently at something northeast. Nobody is responding. I’m hoping I don’t have to kiss any rings. Bosses look at me expectantly. I don’t know what to do, so I talk, talking my gift. I hold out my Christmas bag and remove the strawberry jam, proffering it to the Boo, explaining what it is and how it’s native to my homeland and how the spread can be best enjoyed on a slab of bread or perhaps a croissant for special occasions, even underlining the brand name – Bama – with my fingertip and explaining its context, you know: I’m from a state in the Southeastern U.S. called Alabama, where we traditionally preserve our fruits with sugar in jars to be eaten on biscuits – Do you know what a biscuit is? – or to throw on top of a big ol’ stack of flapjacks, which I guess you guys don’t have here, but it might be good as a glaze for a pork dish or something, and anyway I just wanted to say Thanks for having me and I’m happy to be here.

My Korean co-teacher – whom Johnny awoke just long enough to address as Seo-jun – translates everything for the Brothers Boo, impeccably I imagine, as I remember him telling me last night that he spent ten years in Texas for school and other pursuits. He has undoubtedly eaten a biscuit in his day. Likely even a flapjack. I’m fairly certain the boss understood what I said before the information was relayed to him though. He nods once, severely. Ignores the gift. The travel company that negotiated my teaching contract made it clear that having a gift handy when meeting your boss in Korea is paramount. You must present a gift, as it is considered a symbol of respect, important for the initiation of relations between East and West. So I paid the $50 overweight luggage fee to maintain the three-dollar jar of strawberry jam in my suitcase, repeating the mantra It’s the thought that counts while my credit card was swiped by the stewardess at the Delta kiosk, attempting to indoctrinate my thoughts with a giving spirit that transcends nationalities and bank accounts, ignoring the instinct to request reimbursement from my boss for this particular travel expense. And then I stole a pair of socks that were protruding from the side pocket of an anonymous suitcase under the charter bus and arranged them in my own suitcase, encircling the glass jar, providing extra cushion. And then I awkwardly lugged a jar of jam around a major Asian city while sweating into unorthodox dress clothes as other non-perspiring, short-sleeved Koreans walked and gawked past me.

All this to say, Boo Wong-jon Nim doesn’t even look inside the bag. Seo-jun takes the bag and places it on a sidetable so the boss doesn’t have to touch it. I’m pretty sure the secretary with earmuffs is taking home a brand new jar of strawberry jam after work. The other boss, whose name I didn’t quite catch, begins talking excitedly, fastening sentence upon sentence in a chain of declaratives that dangles in the air, rattling.

Seo-jun translates, appearing ashamed at what he’s about to say, as the bigger-yet-smaller boss looks on expectantly. Seoj relays the message, deadpan.

“He says you are very handsome.”

The Big Kimchi remains stonefaced. Proud. Peering into the middle distance. Holding his own hand at the small of his back.

“Anything else?”

“He wants to know why you’re so dressed up.”

A fraction of a smile. I make a joke that would appease parents and preachers. These are not my parents. They are not appeased or amused.

My Boo, the boss of Buddy Holly and earmuff fame, speaks, looking directly at me from behind the windows of his spectacles while the short vowels of his Korean nouns leaven at the end of his sentences. I imagine the welcome he is giving me, the information I am about to receive regarding the institution and its policies, the do’s and don’ts of academia in Korea. Seo-jun translates.

“He says you’re very handsome.”

Boo isn’t hee-hawing. Instead he appears funereal while staring at me, as if I should say a few words. I capitulate and thank him for the compliment, which is his last, the final. Silence has been adopted as the lingua franca. Everyone exchanges bows like currency and I follow Johnny and Seo-jun past the oak door before it punctuates the exchange behind me. The girls (why is the male tendency to call women of sexual desire girls?) sit behind the secretarial desk, instill longing with their voices in the ears and loins of concerned fathers over telephone headsets, as they (the fathers) inquire about the performance of their sons and sometimes daughters at the institution. Seo-jun prompts us to visit the conference room on the fifth floor, where teachers rest but likely work between teaching sessions. We walk up a flight of stairs, past the fourth floor of ordained classrooms, Johnny taking the steps three at a time. Children running by us in both directions like the simultaneous past and future. I loosen my tie knot and unfasten the top button of my dress shirt, breathe. Johnny waits for us on the fifth floor by the conference door. Seo-jun keys a numbered code into the door’s lock and thrusts the door open.

Inside I find business-casual Korean men and women (but mostly women), young, no one above 40, sitting at desks that line the room’s perimeter and staring into walls. A few teachers converse while eating lunch at the rectangular conference table in the middle. An industrial design similar to the rest stop lavatory I encountered on my bus ride from the Seoul airport. No Western faces turn to inspect me in the threshold. Only Korean teachers sign contracts that force them to work on Saturdays, and only Korean teachers are in the office today. Some of the less burdened rise to greet me, smiling, before getting back to work. Introductions are made. The teachers have chosen English names to use at school in support of their positions, like linguistic minstrelsy: Amy fauns over tabloid cut-outs of Korean male pop stars taped to the cabinet above her desk; Kevin extracts a truncated hot dog and some white rice drizzled in ketchup from his Tupperware with a pair of chopsticks; Angelina smiles warmly but continues to flip industriously through an English dictionary; Sophie flocks to Johnny and then steps back to analyze the two of us, giving me a good onceover. Almost as handsome as Johnny, is the verdict. A brief debate ensues between the female teachers.

Johnny isn’t terribly handsome by traditional standards, but sports blonde hair and blue eyes in a land of brown-haired brown-eyed racial homogeny. His Aryan traits speak for him in Korea, and they speak loudly. Command, even. Social mannerisms, wit, stigmatizing personality traits that would exile a person from his ilk – these become lost in the inability to converse. Surface encounters are the entirety of interaction when your lakes are actually sidewalk puddles. The process is simultaneously alienating and inclusive.

I realize handsome might just be a synonym for different in this environment given the context, the same way exotic is used as a more acceptable synonym for foreign in the States. The bosses weren’t so much complimenting me as reaffirming what I already knew: I don’t belong here.

He says you are very different.

At least I’ll be looked at.

Seo-jun stays in the conference room under Korean jurisdiction, his motherland birth eradicating any kind of American claim to his time on this planet, the most important factor that separates him from us – more so than appearance – being that he must work on Saturday, work under the watchful eyes of his diligent ancestors resting warily in their Sabbath afterlives.

I wonder how many times Seoj has had to tell a stranger that he’s handsome. I wonder how many times that stranger has looked like me.

Johnny and I take the elevator back to the ground floor with instructions to return at 3:30 pm on Monday. I’m much less enamored with the mirror during our descent. I’ve chosen internal reflection as an alternative, pondering my handsomeness through the eyes of Others instead of my own. Johnny stares into his reflecting eyes with a certain apathy, cancelling his image through the indifference of a mathematical equation. The look is something far removed from that of desire.

Elevator doors open to the faded gold of sunlight distilled through thresholds and windows, light coating walls streaked with smudges of passing human shadows. We walk out into the city block, sound and motion renewing themselves abruptly in my perception as if life itself has recently been victim of the TV remote pause. Sidewalk traffic catches us in an energetic flow, wafts us among businessmen and their hurried gaits toward whatever direction the free market demands, which happens to be toward a super(paying)market at the moment. Johnny appears inspired by the crowd’s direction; he begins talking passionately about E-mart – a Walmart and Bloomingdale’s influenced Korean megastore striated with levels of hardware and clothing and fast food restaurants and linens and groceries and school supplies and a frozen food isle – all while crossing eight lanes of involuntarily stalled traffic, restless Kias and Hyunadais crouched on the tarmacadam with off headlights sitting under the drivers’ eyes like askew reading glasses. I don’t believe Johnny knows their hunger. He continues speaking of E-mart’s fresh meats.

We stop on the other side of the street under the awning of a Paris Baguette, the building next to it a polished four-story Samsung electronics dealership that Seo Jun pointed out during the brief car ride last night, noting how the flawless glass building did not exist less than a month ago – like its presence is a testament to immaculate architectural conception – providing Korean construction with its own mythology that has an unnerving possibility for veracity considering displayed work ethic, a myth nursed more by the visitor’s incredulity than the storyteller’s mind. Salesmen who peddle digital cameras completely visible and vulnerable on the third floor like the inhabitants of a Dreamhouse. The roof possibly sporting a valise handle, so that the whole building can be picked up and carried away if so desired.

Johnny is set on an E-mart adventure. Plus, he has produce to buy. And while his consumerist Mecca sounds truly inspired, my heart lies elsewhere. I tell him with the tenderness of a breakup speech about my need to be alone, to do some wandering, and without looking back I ease into the crowd of pedestrians and disappear, leaving Johnny stranded mid-sidewalk. Don’t wait up on me, Johnny. From my back pocket I pull a quadrifolded piece of notebook paper with a hand-drawn map (fold lines entrenched in the paper like an improvised grid), a map that displays more than one X, as well as a few O’s. Directions are written, but not in ink. The Samsung building is actually landmarked by a crude square on the map. The handwriting is curvy, female. I follow it like the word of God.

* After having my first meal delivered to the academy at dinnertime, I learn that the Korean custom is to stack all used porcelain dishes, top them with a piece of printer paper, and place them on the stairs outside the office, where the delivery boys return to retrieve their dishes later in the day.

* DVD-rooms (locally called DVD-bongs) in Korea are slightly misleading in their title. While they are, indeed, private rooms with large screen TVs that can be rented by a group of friends for theater-like movie viewing, they are typically used for their large couches concealed behind locked doors. People make sex on them.




  1. Pingback: The Korea Documents, Segment 4 | the mind is a terrible thing of waste - August 11, 2014

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