After she read about how various so-called “international couples” start to possess a feeling of limbo in the world, belonging neither to their home countries nor to the nations in which they’ve made their new homes, A. asked me how I felt the last two times I went back to America, since at this point, after almost three years in Korea, I am definitely not fully American anymore, and likewise in a state of purgatorial limbo, waiting to burn off the sin of being young before I can attain the heavenly bliss of an income that provides for a life of permanent travel.
I actually thought of writing a nice little novella about it, one that would have been called “Journey to the West”, after a Chinese classic which I have not read, because the truth is that there is definitely a little Korean inside of me, and he was definitely astounded with the size of things in America. There was so much space everywhere. The Detroit airport seemed to have been built in the middle of a forest of green trees blooming with spring, and you could walk around inside as much as you liked without running into all of the great hulking titanic Americans—with their beards, their paunches, their occasional unpretentious air of intellectual sophistication, their way of inhabiting the world without negatively judging everyone around them—who were thundering about, back and forth, on the wall-to-wall carpeting, a phenomenon that shall never see the light of day in Korea, Land of Ruglessness.
These people were comfortable with themselves. For several generations their ancestors had clearly had enough food to eat.
The burrito he bought could have fed an army of Koreans, and while the cheese and the beans and the cream and the tomatoes and the tortilla drove him wild with joy—a single Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant will solve the world’s problems—the lack of serious spice meant that he was ultimately shaking his head with the blandness of it all. And then what the hell was up with the sales tax? Why wasn’t the price a nice and even band of zeroes following one or two integers?
Just as I am constantly astounded by the omnipresence of trash in Korea, so am I likewise astounded with how clean and picturesque America can be. A long while back I caught that Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, dubbed into Turkish, while I was barreling about Anatolia, and although I secretly enjoyed what I was watching (since I secretly enjoy every song I hear, every movie I see, and every book I read), I was still scoffing at some of the (purposeful) cliche images of whatever you want to call it, the hometown, the picket fence, the porches, the lawns, and the flags fluttering in the breezy sun—but god damn, America really looks like that sometimes! People have houses! And lawns! And there isn’t any garbage! The country, the heartland, can be very wealthy—at least in the northeast—but in Korea there is almost no reason to live in any small town, because you’re just getting a smaller and more run-down version of what is available to you in the larger cities.
But as you got down into the more urbanized environments you could see, like, different races coexisting with each other, and not making a big deal about it. People started speaking other languages and nobody stared at them. A single very uncomfortable bus was packed with whites, Asians, Hispanics, and blacks, of all different ages, and there was not a race riot. As I drove into Brooklyn I saw black people (!) walking around outside on the sidewalks as though they belonged there—calmly, comfortably, just going about their daily lives—which was strange to the Korean inside me, since America is a land of white people, and black people are always killing each other or starving to death or playing basketball or starring in blockbuster genre films or being president of the united states, and never just walking around like that.
As I walked through the city I could not believe how easy it was to move. I remember a single event of vast importance that few if any pureblooded Americans would have noticed—I crossed the street in Brooklyn without getting hit by a car and then, on the very comfortably-wide sidewalk on the far side, there was a crowd of pretty tall kids (in America I’m no longer the tallest guy around), and as I walked toward them they flowed around me, almost like water, and I passed through them, and no one had to stop or sidestep or huff or puff as we all would have had to do in Korea. The kids were probably in college, and they were all boys and girls, something that does not happen here, since the sexes do not mix unless they are family or having sex. And they did not spit out some kind of insult at me, or attack me with a snide hello, as they may well have done back in Korea. They didn’t even notice me, in fact. I’m sure absolutely none of them remembered how I gasped and sighed with bliss as they passed around me.
A man and a woman kissed in the filthy subway station. A very attractive woman asked me for directions, which says a lot about how much more comfortable women are in America than in Korea. Nobody pushed or shoved when getting on or off the subway, and then everybody was quiet and respectful inside, as they rode about the city’s cavernous entrails. People were not glaring at each other. The intercom was not repeating a constant stream of songs and announcements. People could just be, without getting harassed in the way they are constantly harassed when they live in the Daehan Mingook.