Two days in a row now I’ve been done in by hour after hour of streaming, babbling Korean. I know enough to identify the important points of these intimate conversations held among my Korean family members, but making sense of all the backwards-somersault grammatical tricks they perform, their Gyeongju accents slurring pairs of Chinese syllables into new Korean monosyllables, with a word like gwa-way, one-on-one tutoring, forced together into gway, in that curious forge, the Korean mouth.
When the conversations end and I collapse into a nap and wake up again I recite individual words to Angelica like snatches of random songs, unknown words I’ve heard buzzing about so many times they’ve stuck to my consciousness like flies to flypaper. Gatta-oneeka-nun, since I’ve been there; kakkdoogee, something related to the hairstyles of old-fashioned mobsters; jul, not just the native Korean noun for Buddhist temple but also a verb, the act of bowing on one’s hands and knees before the tombs (or grass mounds) of one’s ancestors. Ja, jul haja!, my mother-in-law said. Alright, let’s jul! And so we did, out in the countryside under the mountains, next to a banner that said in English and Korean No picking of plants!, to guard against the ajummas and halmonees one sees knocking yellow gingko biloba bulbs out from under the tree branches.
My father-in-law’s parents were buried out there next to one another, and after we had prayed and bowed three times on a silvery plastic mat that billowed up against our elbows in the cool autumn wind, my brother-in-law started sawing at a pair of nearby persimmon trees—mother-in-law handing me two persimmons to eat (almost not quite ripe, hard and crisp like apples)—because as my wife explains, they bought this little patch of land for themselves and need to maintain it, lest the trees run wild and take it for themselves, their branches blocking out the sun. When my parents-in-law die they’ll be buried here, and we’ll cook up their favorite food and lay it out under the sun, speaking strongly, firmly, and loudly, so that they can hear our muffled voices through the earth. Later, at our new apartment, my father-in-law yells that my mother-in-law is a dumb bastard just after she spills a bag of instant coffee by accident. Angelica has said that she only stays with him out of pity.
I have slipped away into naps so easily thanks to the comfort of our new surroundings. It seems as though I have enough space for myself for the first time in my life. I can walk around our living room without bumping into anything. We emptied every last won out of our pockets purchasing a pair of nice American couches from an acquaintance who lives in a clutterd museum of expensive teakwood antiques across town—most Koreans prefer to sit on the bare floor, which means that hard stiff leathery wooden Korean-made furniture is only comfortable if you do not sit on it—and though we have no money to speak of at this moment, and actually have to go several hundred dollars into debt (further into debt, if one counts ten thousand dollars’ worth of student loans) to get ourselves a washing machine, I feel the kind of peace that (forgive my blasphemy) goes beyond what any Buddha could hope to know, sinking into these well-made cushions, reading through the adventures of Moses Elkanah Herzog (in possession of the most beautiful name any Jew ever had), listening to unknown Korean words echo through my mind, as a white cloud drifts through a rectangle of blue sky framed in the wall, as slices of green squash fried in batter tumble through my intestines.
Ah, these Buddhists, what do they know. At least one of the monks at the university has kids. She only rejected the materialism and sensuality of her former life and divorced her husband when they grew old enough to take care of themselves. It is impossible to be a serious Buddhist when one must also provide for children. The amount of garbage our house produces is spectacular. We could fill up an entire landfill single-handedly. One must take part in the world, play the game of life, lose oneself in Sansara, fan the flames of suffering and desire and selfhood, if one is to feed one’s children; the Buddha supposedly had a child of his own, whom he promptly abandoned—just after naming him Shackle. Our son may indeed be a shackle, but he’s a beautiful one, and we’re both crazy about him, even if it seems like giving him a plate of food is no different from mining that food with dynamite.
It may have been all the furniture moving, as well. Over the course of two days I moved a mattress and these two couches down and then up four flights of stairs. Two days later most of my body still aches. The whole of the pointer finger on my left hand is still throbbing with the pleasant pain of spending hours working through the first five seconds of a melody, transcribed to guitar by Corey Harris (transmitted across seven centuries by generations of anonymous griots), of an ancient Malian tune about Sundiata, King of Kings, whose folk tale is very similar to the story of Moses, Snow White, or even Oedipus. It’s the bone that hurts, and my dad thinks it may be a curious case of premature arthritis.