Lotus Eaters

There haven’t been any posts for twelve days because I was busy finishing up work at my university, getting ready to go to America, leaving for America (which took at least two days), and then lost several more days getting over the debilitations of very intense jet lag, which have reduced my wife and my son and I to utter zombitude, leaving us all exhausted during the day and wide awake in the very middle of the night. I’ve made the trip back and forth to Asia several times now and it always seems much more difficult to come to America than to head back to the world’s factory.

It may have something to do with the peace and languor here on Mount Desert Island, where my body is almost trembling from the lack of frenetic noise coming in through the windows. As anyone who knows anything knows, Korea is a noisy place, and although my family lives in a decent apartment, we happen to overlook a typical four-lane highway that is roaring, rattling, and wailing with continuous tractor trailer traffic from about five to one in the morning. Taxis honk their horns, cars screech and nearly collide, and late at night when the road calms down a little there are still plenty of drunk university students screaming their heads off.

Here in the living room the dogs are napping, I can hear a jingling wind chime somewhere, as well as the wind running through the leaves like a distant waterfall, the ticking of a clock, a bee bumping up against the window, the beautiful call of a robin. Green oaks soar like skyscrapers up through the windows, and a car drives down the road about once every ten minutes, at the most. The contrast is so stark I feel shell-shocked, especially because I spent over a year in Korea without being able to escape. Even in a relatively small city like Gyeongju there are few moments I can remember that are a tenth as peaceful as this.

The differences are so pronounced it really does seem difficult to believe that Maine and Korea are on the same planet; I’ve nearly completed a book about Korea, and I’ve toyed with the idea of producing another volume, maybe a sequel, about how strange America seems to someone who has been in Asia for a good long while.

At an oceanography summer camp across the street the students spend a lot of their time laughing, playing, eating, and talking. This morning as I was trying to wear out my baby son in a nearby playground I briefly spoke with two young children without being objectified, insulted, or otherwise degraded, in a language that I understand with some ease, while in Korea there is a decent chance that if I venture out into public with my son but without my wife to lash out at any wrongdoers I will probably be reminded in some form, subtle or violent, that I do not belong there.

America may not be the greatest nation on Earth, but it certainly seems to be the one with the most variety, even in the whitest state in the union, and one of the most sparsely populated. Yesterday I dragged my exhausted wife to the beach, where my son immediately preoccupied himself by eating sand, rocks, seaweed, and god knows what else, while also drinking seawater; during this walk we heard people speaking Italian, French, and possibly German, while there was a woman from South Asia walking around with her son while wearing a white sari. A family of what I believe were Sikhs got on a bus at the airport, where almost all the workers seemed to speak at least two languages while also possessing accents that were sometimes very difficult for me to understand.

An old cotton-haired woman from Maine with a ridiculously thick accent (chowdah, lobshtah, deeya) explained without significant frustration that she could not understand a worker named Ahmed, who wore a suit and who appeared to be one of several people at the gate in charge of making sure that old people made it onto their flights; as this occurred two other workers conversed in what was probably Spanish, Ahmed spoke to one of his friends in what was not Arabic, and two black workers smiled at a young white boy with white hair as he jumped and danced, barefoot, a few feet away from his increasingly frustrated mother. The passengers were almost all white, while the workers were almost all not. In spite of this incredible diversity, everyone seemed to get along just fine, which is not what the Korean inside me would expect, since strength comes from conformity and homogeneity.

Even the commercials on TV are diverse. I usually hate TV, since I am a white person who has completed at least four years of higher education, but since I felt a bit fagged and fashed yesterday, too dazed from god knew how many sleepless nights and grueling days, I found myself unable to do anything except sit in front of the brand new flatscreen Korean television my uncle bought for my parents, and watch the colors flash and flow. Everyone complains about the sexism and racism in commercials here, but they haven’t lived in Korea, where there are not many different kinds of commercials: cellphones and cars (directed toward the young and characterized by cool people doing cool things with lots of trendy Konglish, and always ending with an English slogan read by a deep-throated American), life insurance (middle-aged trustworthy ajoshi-in-a-suit before a white backdrop discussing the issue with a plastic-surgeried mannequin at a bright heavenly call center), and food, with pale white families eating instant noodles in pale white houses and smiling or sometimes even shivering with what cannot be anything except electrode-stimulated orgasms. Cute children will cutely show how much they enjoy getting icecubes from Samsung’s excellent refrigerators. If you happen to be riding a train you will be subjected to extremely formulaic commercials for large conglomerates which always feature suits in hardhats shaking hands in front of steaming, bulbous factories of unbelievable dimensions, sprawling from horizon to horizon. Annoying celebrities push skin-whitening creams, always dabbing it on their pointer finger tips before rubbing it in to their cadaverous cheeks while wearing ridiculous silvery dresses in black studios. Young beautiful models have fun drinking the worst liquor on the planet, known as soju.

In America there is so much more variety—even in the advertisements, to the extent that watching them is honestly pleasant. There are abundant numbers of fat, ugly people trying to sell you things, and numerous people who do not belong to the dominant white caste, always noticeable in the ads for small business colleges. There was one that even featured a single mother studying on her laptop in a bus with her child beside her—something like that would be unthinkable in Korea, where, as you know, families never divorce, children are always born into wedlock, and homosexuality does not exist, as such social illnesses are an outgrowth of western decadence. Here they also show such shocking amounts of cleavage that I was immediately scandalized, since most Korean women appear to be whores with their legs but grandmothers with their chests. The shows are cool too. This morning I saw flipped back and forth between a group of scientists trying to solve the murder of a child who died in Roman Britain about eighteen centuries ago and a show about UFOs in Alaska. There are a lot more ads for websites than I remember from my last visit a little more than a year ago.

It’s ridiculous to say this, and everyone knows it, but Americans are really tall and really fat. If there aren’t too many young people around I’m usually at least half a head taller than everyone else in Korea, but in America I feel like a hobbit, almost embarrassed by the strange way in which I have managed to not become morbidly obese, unlike almost everyone else. We visited Wal Mart a few days ago to purchase the numerous supplies we need to take care of our son—scandalized by prices which would astound most Koreans, who assume that everything in America is more expensive (most things are cheaper, restaurants are not, while everything is of a higher quality)—and saw a woman who looked like the troll in the bathroom from the first Harry Potter movie. Her fatness outdid anything I have ever seen in my life. It was monstrous, depressing, astounding; my mom saw her and, after mentioning that she was smelly, my dad explained that fat people have trouble washing all of their rolls.

The land is lush, broad, endless. A long rainy spring in Maine has covered everything in a cool temperate jungle, with thick grass and leaves bursting out of the earth and tumbling in tidal waves over the streets, threatening to swallow them up. At my family’s house there’s a mix of improvement and decay: new appliances and electronics along with the same incredibly old PC, the same thirteen year-old subarus that need to have five hundred dollar repairs done every few months (the transmission in one of them is going to give out any day now), the same wall-to-wall carpets that reek of dog fur and cat piss. I’m happy to be here.

The fact that I no longer seem to possess a permanent, comfortable home has meant that everywhere I go everything is bizarre to me; the entire world is an unfamiliar adventure, and I am happy to exist inside it.

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One thought on “Lotus Eaters

  1. jillerwich says:

    glad to hear you are enjoy the good and the bad of america. have a great vacation/visit/social experiment!

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