It was in Seonggeon, a district of Gyeongju, at my in-laws’ house.
The family had finished feasting themselves on the usual array of pungent brown stews, uncooked tentacles, and spiced, pickled cabbages. Now they were gathered around the baby and the television, their attention alternating between the former’s gurgles and the latter’s grainy black-and-white images of tanks rolling over muddy hills.
The family, in their casual clothes, had occupied the master bedroom alone, sitting on a blanket that had been spread over the floor; the younger brother’s two friends, having only just arrived, were in the living room, standing in the doorway while overlooking the scene of heartwarming filial bliss before them—one perhaps not so different from the straw-strewn Nativity dioramas you come across around Christmas.
The father remembered that one of the two college students in the doorway was renowned as a singer. Suddenly he clapped his hands and demanded, Herodically: “Sing!”
The singer obliged him. He was also known for his high English scores. He looked at me and asked, “Do you know R. Kelly?”
“Yes,” I replied. “The child molester?”
As he did not know the phrase he ignored me, nodded, smiled, and began singing “I Bereeve I Can Fry”. And I, sitting on the floor with the family, blushed to the roots of my hair. The man sang through the entire song—and he did not just sing, he yelled, clutched his chest, squeezed his eyes shut, he caterwauled with passion and violence.
Flushed red on the floor, I thought I was embarrassed for myself, or perhaps somehow attracted to this young man, who was dressed head to foot in soiled denim, even though I generally do not blush when I find people attractive. I could not explain my behavior.
He finished the song, he bowed, people clapped, the gods chortled.
But as I thought back over the absurdity of this event I realized I was not embarrassed for myself so much as for him. He was not a terrible singer. According to my wife he recently won some sort of local singing contest. The song itself may have been the product of an infamous child molester but it’s still fairly common; it’s not as though he was singing an obscure anthem from NAMBLA. Honestly it was pretty impressive that he was able to sing a song in a difficult foreign language. I made fun of his accent earlier, but he got most of the words right. So why, then, was it all so ridiculous?
I don’t know! But it was! The denim! R. Kelly! Screaming bad pop music at the top of your lungs in a crowded, confined space—a Korean nativity scene! Minus lambs, plus tentacles! Perhaps I was merely jealous of his talents and boldness. I’m not sure. But I do know that he followed up on this song by asking my wife and I for free English lessons, which I guess he expected to get thanks to his vague connection with our family.
In his words, he basically wanted to hang around our apartment and listen to my wife and I speak English to each other. Of course as you can imagine we were both thrilled by this proposition. In our diminutive living space, strewn with old food and garbage bags bursting with shit-filled diapers—in our kitchen, crowded with bottles which are themselves filled with rancid goatmilk—in our lives, packed with endless baby-related responsibilities that prevent both of us (but mostly my wife) from doing anything that does not involve tossing a four month-old infant up to the ceiling from early in the morning to late at night—there is more than enough time to entertain a random college student who is after a service which costs other people fistfuls of cash to acquire. Sure. No problem. And while you’re at it, why don’t you ask for my phone number in front of everyone, so that if I refuse I’ll look like an asshole. That’s it. Perfect.
The next event which confirmed the embarrassing nature of the first occurred while I was walking home from the university at nightfall after a rather long day. I ran into this student, whose name I don’t actually know, while he was walking (still clad wholly in denim) with his fairly attractive girlfriend: he accosted me, introduced me to his girlfriend, we bowed to one another in that awkward Korean way which demands that each person watch the other while bowing to make sure that everyone is showing the right level of respect, and then he explained something to his girlfriend in Korean—while I plotted my escape. Chance flashed before my eyes like a golden sparrow; I seized it. “I’m sorry, I really have to go,” I said, and he looked at me, threw his head back, opened his mouth nice and wide, and guffawed.
And then of course, like the most heartless pickup artist, he never called me.