I knew there was a lot of garbage in Korea, I’ve written about the garbage here a thousand times before, it’s even how my book about this place opens up, during my trip to America one of my relatives even commented on how dark and depressing an opening this was—and yet, this morning when I ventured outside into the molasses-thick humidity at the behest of my son (yelling at me to put on his shoes in Toddlerese and then yelling at me while pointing to the door), and went to the deserted and very poor excuse of a playground that we frequent merely because it is close to the apartment, I was still astounded that people anywhere could live like this.
I wanted to take a picture of the trash and start a tumblr blog about the garbage here in the spirit of Blackout Korea, but I hadn’t brought my phone, so you’ll have to just imagine the pseudo-gazebo carpeted with newspapers, beer cans, and cigarette butts; the piles of beer bottles, napkins, and paper cups for instant ramen in the bushes; the cigarette butts and cigarette cartons scattered all over the place, along with the occasional little puddles of drying phlegm. A delightful place to take a child. It’s like this everywhere. People have had little parties for themselves and left the refuse behind.
The same old thoughts returned to me, as I re-acclimated to Korea, having only been here for several hours after two months in far cleaner and toddler-friendly America: if you go inside a Korean car, or a Korean house, everything is spotless, every time, but if you walk outside in Korea, you have no choice but to get used to the garbage. The reverse is true of America, which is usually pretty damn clean on the outside and likewise somewhat cluttered within.
When we first arrived in the rather amazing airport at Incheon and devoured our first real bowls of Korean food in two months I thought that I had to make a special note in my phone to remember an earlier vow I had made, to return to America, and live in Brooklyn, and not get sucked into Korea again. To not get too comfortable here with the food and the people and the places I missed. Even as we drove into rainy Gyeongju, and circled around the river lined with boxy gray cement buildings, I found myself feeling very content. The forests seemed lush and green, the skies were heavy with rain, swarms of cicadas were screaming from the branches of every tree.
But then with the baby and the garbage, while walking along one of the filth-strewn sidestreets to the ghetto playground, I was just, like, what am I doing here? The same thought came to me back when I was finishing college and hanging around Maine, coupled with a kind of desperation: that I must do something before I turn into a boring person who has become complacent with a situation that should be far better than it is. There are things I love about this place, but I think and perhaps even hope that the prophecy told to me by one of my coworkers will come true: I will not always be an English teacher in Korea.