Pedaling through Gyeongju at night. This is a flat city, built millennia ago beneath the great sheltering wall of South Mountain, and unlike the near-vertical drops of Busan you can really get around in this place if you’ve got a bike: only the crisscrossing four-lane highways pose any danger, and the traffic lights go on forever. Even as I bike here I’ve got New York on my mind: there at least the lights change after just a few seconds.
But here it’s just me and the drunken old men wobbling on their ankles and screaming into the night with their buddies, who are trying to calm them down; the middle school girls racing back and forth to their hogwons in their school uniforms before the ten o’clock deadline, at which point they have to attend illegal hogwons to get ahead of everyone else; and pairs of white gleaming ajummas going out for pleasant evening strolls near the wider sidewalks and brighter lights of the parks and the sports stadium. It is bizarre. Things seem pleasant. The heat in the dark thick air means that I get to each lesson coated in sweat, my old sneakers still reeking from the rainstorms that only come on the weekends.
Even though I have to weave around other bikes pedaled by men with glowing cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, and deal with each person or bike or even car I encounter on an ad hoc basis—the only rule is that there are no rules (sometimes people go on the left, sometimes not)—I still really like this. I’m excited. I’m awake. The two or three hours of lessons I have go by quickly. Every parent I meet smiles, bows, invites me in, gives me sliced up fruits and cakes, or glasses full of grape juice. The students are fun, polite. Two boys can converse in English but basically refuse to, as we walk along the river where a small boat with two orange sails is gliding beneath a recently-constructed pavilion. One very young girl on the other side of town, in East Stream, is my buddy. She adores me to the extent that she does not really want to learn English in my company so much as hang out with me for an hour, at her parents’ expense. She’s a very young beginner and I’ve had to do some searching around to find a curriculum for her, and though I think it would be better for her to learn with a Korean, at her age, her parents don’t seem to think so.
Rather than coming home and collapsing into bed, as is usual after a full day of taking care of the baby, teaching college students, writing a novel, maybe practicing Korean, taking care of the baby again, and then heading out for a few hours to teach, I come home and drink down a glass of wine while figuring out Bajourou on the guitar. My wife watches a Korean dating show: I join her, and can follow along and learn a bit because for whatever reason lots of Korean TV shows have subtitles in Korean bubbling up at the bottom of the screen, though each sentence necessitates rapid typing into my phone’s translator, and the people conjugate their verbs in ways I haven’t found in even my darkest nightmares. It is amazing, the precision of the flavor of each verb that comes out of the end of their sentences and their mouths, the very specific feelings they wish to convey even as they discuss the dullest and most mundane trifles.
“My-ee nay-eem ee-jjuh An-jyel-ee-ga!”—“This is what you sounded like when you first got to Australia, right?” I ask my wife, and she says I still sound like that every time I try to speak Korean: earlier in the afternoon I had talked with her parents (while devouring mother-in-law’s delicious and healthy food!), I had taken a risk by blurting out something like “As this food is delicious, I am full!”, and her mom had agreed with me while at the same time wincing in a way that she could not prevent, for I had spoken in an improper and ridiculous fashion that only people familiar with my own foibles could understand.
The baby’s awake. It begins again.