Strains, or Lacerations

The baby is gone. I took him to daycare this morning, and as we walked together through a little park beside a roaring highway—all parks in Korea being within twenty feet of at least four lanes of breakneck traffic—he seemed stunned, utterly stunned, to behold the world beyond our apartment during the day. And that world was a beautiful one. The darkness and grayness of Fall, with red and yellow leaves choking the grass, drifting through the air past bare treetrunks. You feel like a dolly tracking through a film set; your eyes are in widescreen smellavision, because you can also catch a faint whiff of the coffee wafting away from a nearby shop that is famous for being quite good and also unbearably expensive. A good (or bad) cup of coffee will set you back five dollars in the Republic of Korea. It was also closed on a Wednesday morning because Korea is also known as Opposite World.

My wife and I have been taking care of the baby nonstop for the last five days because he has caught a very serious cold, and has also developed an incredible rash on his ass, a red coin imprint surrounding his adorable baby anus. This is because troubles don’t come one at a time: dozens of them always come at you at once—we went from being a relatively pleasant and pacific family to a screaming, sickened, penniless mess almost overnight. I came down with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease after a lifetime of never, ever having any problems at all with my digestive system, and also caught a killer cold that may just be a result of all these acidic juices washing up along the shoreline at the back of my throat. Now I have to take twenty pills a day, I can’t drink coffee or tea, or eat chocolate, I have to sleep with at least two pillows under my head, and I have also had to temporarily suspend my vegetarianism, because my previous refusal to eat anything with meat in it meant that I wasn’t eating anything at all. My wife has said that this situation is not permanent, and that I should recover within a month or two, and I do feel a lot better than I did, but I suspect that I drank my last cup of terrible coffee while I was bored out of my mind while waiting at a train station last week—I had accidentally shown up an hour early.

That’s just the baby and me. My wife is not sick, because she has the strongest constitution of anyone I have ever known, and, aside from a few sneezes here and there, hasn’t had so much as a cold since I first met her, although she is so skinny she could probably make a living starring in those “Feed The Children” commercials. Forgive my insensitivity and political correctness. She also has a new, fresh lease on life because a rich ajumma in Gyeongju has decided to hire her as an English tutor for her daughter. In case you don’t know, tutoring Korean students in English is possibly the easiest and most lucrative job in the world; the trouble is just finding enough students to fill up the day.

Anyway, she’s gone out to teach twice now, and came back each time radiant with joy and energy and vitality—the happiness of someone who has not worked in months, returning to usefulness. That’s essentially how she put it. She’s been slaving away around the clock in our various apartments since the baby was born, but I think some women have this idea or insecurity that taking care of a child is not real work, when, in fact, I myself usually go to work at the university to take a break from raising my boy. There is absolutely nothing more difficult, or trying, than a screaming baby, at least for me. Give me a war zone. Give me a pack of rabid wolves, out in a dark forest, alone. Seriously. Everything else is a cakewalk compared to a screaming baby who will not stop screaming. Although I’ve developed a new tactic when this happens: I throw on some clothes and just walk around with him outside, usually at night, in the company of unlit streets, cement apartment buildings, and little cigarette shops.

There have also been other problems. I am leaving out a lot of details here, but one of our close Korean relatives borrowed a hundred thousand dollars from her friends and family, and then essentially defaulted on everyone, my wife included, about two weeks ago. Her parents had saved up enough money over their lives bail her out, but now their savings are gone, and my father-in-law infuriated my wife by asking her to help out with a little money now and then in the future—this despite the fact that we rarely have more than a few hundred dollars in our bank account because we are siphoning off everything we earn to our rent, our debt, and milk and diapers, both of which are sold in Korea (like all other baby-related items) at extortionate prices.

So thanks to all this stress we’ve been fighting a lot for the first time in our relationship, and I’ve been lashing out at everything, and everyone, around me. Even my unbelievably polite and respectful students have been chewed out a few times for being too shy to say anything in English to each other. But that vague abstract entity known as “Korea” gets the brunt of my attacks. I thought I was unhappy because I had been stuck in this country for six months, without a break from the endless Old People Theme Park That Is Korea, and indeed my thoughts have been taking a very violent turn, lately, whenever the ridiculous elderly persons who live in this country act in ways that darken the reputation of all humanity in the eyes of god. Thanks to them, and them only, he is considering scrapping the entire universe. I was ready, really ready, to tear out the throats of the band of old hikers who came on to the train with me a week ago and began hollering at each other as loudly as humanly possible for upwards of an hour.

Now I just turned 24, and I have not raised a hand against anyone since the fourth grade, when even then I grabbed someone on the playground and acted like I was going to deck him right in the face, although I hesitated and backed down, even though he was afraid, and waiting for me to attack, and not resisting me, because I knew physical violence is wrong. But man, I have never been so close to violence in my life as I am now. We live above a parking lot that is, like the rest of Korea, strewn with garbage, even though we pay through the teeth for this place. I want to go down, pick up all the trash, and then dump it inside the office of the owners of our apartment building. I think about this often. I must spend thirty minutes a day making detailed mental plans for violent action against the twin depredations of laziness and inconsideration. When I am unfortunate enough to be riding the Busan subway, which is thankfully just three times a week, now, and someone inevitably begins a shouting match with his or her cell phone, I usually think of taking their phone and throwing it out the doors, just before they close, and I continue to fantasize about this until the shouting match ends, or until I get out at my stop.

Yes. I am stressed out. But I also do need a break from Korea. I need to go to a place where the old people do not act like children, where garbage is not strewn all over the place, and where you can go into a forest without being swamped by hundreds of old people who are all wearing radios on their vests that are blaring the same horrible bullshit music. And thanks to the fact that, financially speaking, we are treading water, with the vague possibility that we might be able to save up enough money to buy some apartments and live off the rent a few years down the road—I can expect to be stuck here effectively forever. And this terrified me, because I don’t want to be stuck anywhere. I went to Hampshire College. I am a free spirit! I want to break free!

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4 thoughts on “Strains, or Lacerations

  1. Jennifer says:

    Ian – I know how it feels to feel stuck in a hamster wheel. For most of the last year that’s how I felt, because, financially I have only debt. Debt, debt and more debt. I have no savings and while my grandparents maybe might be able to help me out in an emergency, they’ve helped me too often before for my pride to stand it. So I also felt trapped in Korea. And this left me drowning in depression, because I’ve been in Korea with only two short breaks in Japan and no trips to the States since late September 2009. And it can kill your soul. It’s just not as relaxing as the U.S., not only because it’s a foreign country where your mind has to constantly adjust to differences, but because of garbage-noise-traffic-whatyoujustsaid.

    Very recently, however, I snapped out of the mentality of “Trapped in the hamster wheel” and began to reimagine my life. Nothing substantial has really changed in my life, mind you. I still have debt-debt-debt-debt. But then I began thinking about friends I have who are going to grad-school for free or even being paid for it. And I realized that I’m pretty fucking smart, too. I also started researching other countries where you can also teach English and receive a decent salary with benefits – among those Japan, Finland and France. And then I thought about relatives at home who would gladly take me in if all else failed (which you have too, I think.) And little glimmers of hope began to emerge to the right and left of my Korean Hamster Wheel of Doom.

    And so now I’m plotting to take 1-2 months in the States as of early January just as a rest break. Then I’m going to get a new job in Korea for about a year. And while I’m working here next year I’m going to study my ass off for the motherfucking GRE and I’m going to ace that motherfucker – even the math section. And then I’m going to get paid to go to grad school (or at least go for free). And, if for some reason this doesn’t all go to plan, there are many other crazy things Lee and I can do like move to Finland and teach there, just because.

    Now I realize you now have a little baby to think of also. But people with babies do amazing things too. They finish school and they move to countries that aren’t Korea. Especially smart, young, talented people like you and Angelica. You aren’t caught in the Hamster Wheel of Doom, truly. I know you feel like you are (it sounds like that anyway), but I see great potential in you. Korea has a way (in my opinion) of limiting people’s dreams. There’s a sort of stagnation in the air of people who never did what they wanted to do, a sense of doom that just floats on the breeze and gets in the water. After about 6 months it starts to seep into your soul. Don’t let it get you. It’s like the oldies song – “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do…” There’s a better life for you. Trust it.

    Anyway, after our musical revue next Sunday (if you can manage to see it, I think it will be good!) I will be free to visit people for the next few weekends before I take my rest-break in the States (Lee will be staying here). I would love to come up to Gyeongju one of those weekends, or maybe even two of those weekends. I don’t find crying babies the least bit daunting (perhaps because they are not my own) so if you want someone to help out a bit or just accompany you through the valley of the crying babies, I am game. Hell, I’ll even babysit (for free) if you need a date with Angelica some time next month.

    Anyhow, remember what I told you a long time ago, probably a lot more eloquently – don’t let having a child make you throw away your dreams. You are *the smartest friend I have* and if it’s something you want *you should be a college professor in the United States*. Hell, at Hampshire, if you like. Someone, somewhere will pay your ass to get a Master’s.

    Alright, then. Good luck with things on your side. And seriously, cucumbers and carrots. Like 2 cucumbers a day, minimum.


  2. juliana says:

    Dude! Ian! I fucking love you man!

  3. hiddenconnections says:

    Thanks guys…Jen, those are interesting plans…my current escape plan involves learning to program computers, because the only people I know who have good jobs are people who can do so. They aren’t necessarily satisfied, either, but they are rolling in dough.

    The stagnation seeped into me after the first hour, and hasn’t really left since, but I’m afraid at this point that it’s just people and civilization I can’t stand, and not Korea itself. Meaning that if I moved back to America I would still be sickened by everything around me. But grad school isn’t really an option. The professors I talked to said that I shouldn’t go, because talent isn’t an issue; the job situation does not improve even if you have a graduate degree. Still, I miss education, and I wish I could somehow be involved in a permanent school state, just for the sake of talking about and writing about books.

    The baby isn’t so bad at all (despite all of my whining here I do LOVE HIM), and he’s on the cusp of sleeping through the night, so things are improving slowly, and that is definitely a source of my malaise. I hope the show went well last night, and I’m looking forward to seeing you this weekend.

  4. hiddenconnections says:

    Oh, and I’ve taken your cucumber advice, thank you!

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