We are not in the bowels of a Napoleonic frigate, nor are we under attack, nor are we returning fire, and filling the packed wood room with floods of cannonsmoke—it’s just some bar in Busan crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with foreigners, heavy smokers, and drinkers, all sitting or standing around a stage hardly larger than a table. On this stage the host of the comedians is alternately chatting into the microphone and fending off the screams of two old British harpies standing at the back of the crowd, both of whom seem to be wearing blond wigs of straw set above foreheads and jaws of stretched wrinkles and drawn wretched age.
When he can get a word in between their shrill harangues he talks about life before Busan. He’s in his thirties now and he evidently spent his early twenties working at Wal Marts and filling out forms at temp agencies: his college degree is similar to mine. Coming to Busan gave him a new life: new friends, a new job, and a new apartment. He arrived older than most of the English teachers, and he says he thinks the younger people complain so much because they don’t know how bad life is on the outside. This man views with great skepticism any plans of escape, or the usual spiels about volunteering at orphanages and going to graduate school after the end of the typical year-long contract, since everyone knows that many people who despise this place leave and run out of money looking for jobs and then come crawling back for more. He used to have nightmares about returning to America, so he stayed in Korea for six years, and now look at him, now draw his portrait: sagging beer belly in t-shirt, sad eyes sunken in puffy hollows of flesh, forehead thoroughly furrowed, face lined with permanent exhaustion, stained with lazy scruff, standing alone in a bar before smoky pillars of light and an audience of the bored and uncaring. It’s not really humor so much as darkness; he’s the only one laughing at his jokes.