The time has come to work. For the last week I’ve been traveling about the great continental expanse of America, exhausting myself and my family on a caravan of discovery to the red brick towers of Portland, Maine, where the seagulls are always singing!, to the suburbs of Worcester, Massachusetts, an area inhabited by the ancestors of my grandfather for almost four centuries, and thence onward to the colleges of Amherst and a spotlessly clean home belonging to a band of rather amazing Iranians, to the mansion that is also a Victorian museum owned by another grandfather, and into New York City and the city-within-a-city that is perhaps my only home, Brooklyn, to the forests under the Catskills, and then back here, to Maine, where rainwater is dripping down between the fat green oak leaves, and the crickets are singing along with a lone rooster at the end of a silent road.
It took seven grueling days to do all that, and the journey was only a very small slice of the whole country, which I would like to spend months or even years exploring in its entirety, either on a bicycle or inside an electric car.
We have to go back to Korea in several days, but I managed to convince my wife to let us move here, maybe when our son is five or six and we no longer desperately need to take advantage of the free or nearly free quality childcare and healthcare that is provided by South Korea’s government, itself far more communist than the North. We would lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month to these expenses if we were to move to a place like Brooklyn.
The day we left Brooklyn was also the day my wife told me to stop talking about moving here. Despite the entreaties of a friendly taxi driver with a difficult accent that took a few minutes to acclimate to (“it’s expensive but you make enough!”), and despite the thousands of working-class people we saw bestriding the sidewalks, working in the restaurants, pushing along humming metal tanks of propane, people who probably live in Brooklyn, she was convinced that even with her nursing degree and my experience as a professor we would be unable to make a living here. Better to go back to Korea, where we rarely manage to do better than break even.
Her mind finally changed in upstate New York, where we stayed with my aunt and uncle for one short night. These are two people who have achieved the kind of success we can only salivate over, with an apartment in the middle of Manhattan and a sleek ultramodern place in the country. My aunt is the somewhat famous and incredibly wonderful Beverly Semmes, and she and her husband so charmed my Korean wife that she was scheming about how we could move out here within moments of pulling out of their driveway. Their elegance was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Before meeting them we had stayed in a three-story Park Slope brownstone owned by a different aunt and uncle, both of whom have achieved similar levels of success, and even this had not been enough to convince her that even a middle class life in a far smaller place in a less-desirable neighborhood is still better than even the biggest apartments of Gangnam, an unbelievably expensive neighborhood in Seoul, where you still have to wade through the usual puddles of vomit and prostitution fliers the moment you step outside. And of course if you want to find a good bagel there, fugghedaboutit.
When we had first walked into that place we were both exhausted from the trip into the city: simple enough for people who live there, but horrifying for those who don’t, I had missed the exit after the George Washington Bridge and gotten lost in the Bronx, going the wrong way on a one-way street and nearly smashing into another car at a small intersection. On the way back to the bridge, after I finally got onto the highway, I had missed the exit again, and would have had to swing around on the far side of the bridge (after waiting an hour in traffic) and pay the toll again had I not spotted a car-sized gap in the cement separating the now-divided highways, and swung through it, with several cars around me honking and swerving wildly. I did this while also shouting on a cellphone with my dad.
The rest of the drive was slow but uneventful, and when we finally got to our destination both of us were so tired and so overwhelmed by the wealth and style we encountered there that we felt like garbage and filth that could never aspire to these heights of success. Even though I must have one of the best jobs in the world—that of a foreign-born professor of English living in Korea—I still feel like I don’t deserve it (some students said as much in their written comments on my performance), and I’m usually embarrassed when I tell people what I do, because they’re always impressed, and they probably shouldn’t be. I have to tell them that I’m a B.A professor and am probably too scatterbrained to pursue a Ph.D.
I also have to stop this here because my son is awake, but I hope to add more about our trip in the near future.