The Couches

There are two of them in my apartment, and several months ago they were both bought together for around $350 from a friend who claimed to have gotten them from the American Embassy in Seoul, on top of that claiming that they were made in America, which is supposedly famous for producing good couches. I don’t know anything about those assertions, but I do know that the couches are comfortable. I know this because for many years I lived in a house with couches of such staggeringly powerful embraces that after five minutes they would put to sleep guests who were unused to their charms. So after three years of sitting on hard Korean floors and in hard Korean chairs without any neck support, and after aching and groaning and leaning forward on hard tables to rest like a convict, my neck throbbing with pain even in the tackiest cafes, these two new couches came as a revelation. From now on people could come to this apartment and be comfortable. I could lie back and watch my son play with his toys and let my mind wander.

Westerners took advantage of these good couches. But many Koreans refused to do so. Most of the homes I have encountered in this country are not furnished beyond a single small kitchen table and a couple of very hard chairs, which are occasionally made of metal and plastic. Now and then a blanket may be spread on the floor before a flatscreen television. Other rarer wealthier families do possess leather couches of great size and hardness, and these line the walls of their living rooms and seem to function—entirely—as the supporters of stray papers, textbooks, and backpacks. Sit on one of them and you feel yourself racked with pain; at the house of a very wealthy patron the couch is so soft that you cannot sit on it without sliding off onto the floor.

And that is exactly what these Korean visitors do the moment my back is turned. They come in and they make a show of sitting on the corrupt decadent western couches, allowing only an inch or two of their rumps to make contact with the cushions, still supporting the lion’s share of their weight with their legs, which are stretched out like rigid hypotenuses, straight to the floor. Then, the moment I leave the room, they fall to the floor like synchronized dancers, and the couches go unused until long after they’ve left.

I’ve asked my wife about this. She has been Americanized by me, and lies down and stretches herself out and relaxes on these cushions with the glee of the lankiest laborer, and she claims that her fellow Koreans think it rude to relax in the company of, well, anyone—anyone, at least, beyond the immediate family. One thinks at once of the occasional benches that can be found outside which do not have any backs and are rarely if ever used, though one can see old men sitting on them if one searches for awhile, their legs stretched out, arms on their knees, backs completely straight, like the yangban nobility one sees in pictures of the destitute, backward, and oppressive Joseon Dynasty. I was once reprimanded by my wife’s family for lying down in their company—as I stretched out and sighed with fatigue I knew at once from the shock and glare of those around me that I had committed a faux pas—thence told by her father that I was not acting yangban-like.

A yangban at work.

A yangban at work.

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