“Heem!” the nurse screamed, climbing back on top of my wife’s belly and pounding it for all she was worth. “Heem!” Like a punching bag. “Heem!” As though giving CPR. “Heem!”
Ian James never thought he would come to South Korea. Fleeing the economic collapse in the West, he arrived weeks after graduating from college and discovered a country of infinite strangeness, where strippers dance on the street in front of electronics’ stores and children shove their fingers inside the rectums of terrified English teachers. In the beginning he despised the place, but before the end of his first year he was not only in love with Korea, but crazy about a woman named Gold Silver Jade, the Calypso who tore him away from his native New England and planted him so firmly into the soil of his adopted homeland that he was both unable—and unwilling—to escape.
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And now for an excerpt:
Taeja was happy among her guests and avoided me as the dark presence of forlorn love that would wring out the butterflies in her stomach like wet rags. I reminded her that the bridge to heaven—what she may have perceived heaven, and happiness, to be—was broken, and all of her desires were racing over it and spilling off into the yawning whirlwinds of chaos.
The festive golden haze whirled around me, and the rice wine fizzled inside my paper cup. I filled, refilled, drank, and blinked with some sort of dizziness, a dim pleasant warmth flickering through my mind like a cat’s tail, as I pictured the possibility of a liaison together.
It would start with a delightful kiss, with real true romance down away from prying eyes, among the shelf holding the foreign books (otherwise known as The Complete Works Of Thomas Hardy), on a weekend afternoon.
Taeja! Come and look at this! Where did you get this copy of Borges! Oh, it came in yesterday, I order for you. We look at the book together. It’s Spanish and English, bilingual. Bruma de oro. Haze of gold. Beautiful in both languages, isn’t it? Yes…!
Looking down at her. Meeting her brown eyes. Leaning in to kiss her—then the kiss! Do you remember the first time you kissed the one—that is, if you believe in such things? How your eyes closed! Dry lips on dry lips. This is nice. She pulls back. Ian…! she laughs, and then leans in for another. Cue the orchestra, and drop the Borges.
Now we’re talking all the time. She listens to me complain about Ms. Yoon and the students and Deokcheon on the phone, and over the weeks I notice her English speeding up. She’s ambivalent about her husband. A good man, but after twenty years the marriage more resembles an alliance of convenience than a unity of fire and passion. I think, never I meet someone new, my life over. I don’t love him and he don’t love me, but we are together comfortable. He is still handsome man. He will find new wife.
You may cringe as you read this, but I swear to god, that’s how I imagine everything as I stand in the burning gold of the yuletidinous café, smiling stupidly to myself with the bubbles of the rice wine sparkling, bursting, borne away, in the soon-to-be-swallowed liquid universe in the paper cup in my hand.
I text poetry to her, spend more time teaching myself Korean. People notice a new bounce in my stride at work as well as increased levels of silliness. They whisper that Ian doesn’t hate Korea so much anymore since he started getting laid.
Taeja, walking to work the next morning, laughs for no reason, and fights to conceal her new happiness. Life is beautiful. The world dances by in a blur of roses. When her friends ask her why, she says it’s just a new kind of coffee they should taste, and they roll their eyes and think, there she goes, trying to sell us coffee again—they don’t know she means white meat coffee—while her mind is already racing through the future. She fantasizes within my fantasy, and the plains of America unroll within her imagination, endless green meadows and forests, no one to bother you, a cabin stocked with books.
She never had time for this sort of thing when she was young. Always busy, studying, working. How could you date like in the movies when you’re getting four hours of sleep a night? Romance is a privilege of wealth. How did I even meet my husband? Neither of us can remember! Our whole lives together, too busy to remember!
Her son and her husband are so absorbed in their own worlds that they don’t notice how often their mother is smiling as she cooks dinner and cleans the apartment. They’re too caught up to see what’s really going on here: mom roped in a young American—alllll riiiiiight!—and what’s more, she did it all by herself, without so much as a single drop of love potion. Would this horrify the young son, who had long-since concluded that his parents’ relationship was as stale as the cigarette butts that sprinkle Busan’s sidewalks like powder on the frosting of a green chocolate cake?
It probably wouldn’t surprise him at all, because Mother and Father never kiss. They never say they love each other, nor do they laugh at each other’s lame, repetitive jokes. They smirk, but the uproarious soju laughter of the pork barbecue joints never visits their apartment. They never speak of anything beyond practicalities, like you should do this, can you do that, day after day, for years on end. Nor do they even refer to each other as honey. One is “Namyong’s Father”, the other is “Namyong’s Mother”. In their thinly-walled apartment, the boy is never bothered in the dimmer hours by the bumps and heaves of parents who still enjoy sexually objectifying one another. All instead is passionless silence.
Namyong, “Southern Dragon”, their son, who was named by a hired shaman—who based his nomenclature upon an inexpensive consultation of the astral omens, i.e., the conjunction of the sun, the moon, and the visible planets within certain constellations, at the exact second the baby was pulled from his mother’s womb, all of which determined the two specific Chinese characters that would be most auspicious for his personal name—had concluded as he grew aware of himself and his family that his two parents didn’t feel any real affection for each other at all. The long years of Man-eup’s sickness, of the wife always helping and the husband always being helped, had done away with the muted but mutual attraction that had first brought them together after a blind date at a teahouse, during which time they hadn’t spoken to each other at all, as they were chaperoned by their parents in addition to their matchmaker, who made three thousand dollars from bringing them together. After two more subsequent dates their chaperones decided to marry them, as they were already getting on in years (Man-eup was twenty-five, and toiling around the clock (and the week) among the blinding, deafening torches and hammers at Ulsan’s nearby shipyards; Taeja was twenty-three, and had just finished school), and both of them had to get married before the community ostracized them for refusing to do what everyone else was doing, which is to say, perpetuating the species. Aside from creating a single child, they never saw one another, and mostly left each other alone, even after Man-eup had to stop working at Ulsan. It was a loveless marriage, but not an unhappy or inconvenient one.
For years Man-eup couldn’t help but notice the notorious ads for virgin Vietnamese brides every time he saw them in the newspaper, and he knew that there were international wedding agencies out in Busan’s satellite cities that would nab you a real firecracker straight from the rice paddies for a cool $40,000. God damn, he thought. God damn. If only there was some way to do it secretly. Save up enough money, put her in a separate apartment, visit her without anyone knowing.
He was grateful that Taeja had taken care of him for so long, but gratitude only rarely transforms into passion outside of pornographic films. Some arranged marriages eventually catch fire, but his wife was too strong for him, too manly, a far cry from the long pale legs prancing around in heels outside the door to his old apartment building—the legs growing ever longer, ever paler; the heels growing ever thicker, ever sharper, with the quick flow of the years—and because she was so into feminism she almost never put on makeup, and even called it clown paint. As a more traditional sort of man, it was impossible for Man-eup to find his wife attractive. She was a nice nurse, a reasonable cook, and an uncomplaining servant and worker, even a decent mother to his son, but not much more. These two neither fought, nor loved.
In my drunken haze of gold, I invent these details to justify the horns that have begun to twist up out of Man-eup’s skull.
Next weekend Taeja and I sit close at the café and look deeply into one another. The occasional customer eyes us once or twice because we’re taboo—it’s treacherous for a Korean woman to sully the purity of her racial lineage by even glancing at a white man, and bizarre and improper for a woman past childbearing age to have any sensual desires of any kind at all; the old, the dry, the dusty, the mothball-ridden, belongs tucked in the attic, safe and out of sight; but falling in love at any time is improper, as most marriages are still arranged, even today, particularly among the true rulers of the country—the CEOs of Hyundai and Samsung.
In the middle of practicing some basic Korean and stealing kisses whenever there’s no one around I tell her I don’t want to go all the way back to Deokcheon, but we can’t stay at her apartment because her husband is there, along with her innocent son, and how am I going to deal with that little Hamlet? But Taeja, what about a love motel…?
Sex between lovers cannot be bad. We discover each other’s bodies. Here are the cartographer’s landmarks: a dark nasty scar on her left arm, near the shoulder, where she was inoculated as a child against most of the preventable diseases that carried off droves of the previous generation; a mole in the soft skin behind her left kneecap; a bit of unavoidable leathery sag here and there, but am I really so much better? If I’m not sagging now, I will be later, and because the passage of time is an illusion (eternity being the only true reality), I’m already far older than she is. There are little flecks of glint on her shins.
She acts a lot younger than she looks, and doesn’t take it personally when it turns out that I’m still too nervous to orgasm with anyone except my right hand. But neither of us get much sleep—not because of the sex, because of the excitement!
Next morning dims grayly through the window, and we hug under the covers, with our own smell all over each other. Everywhere we go together people stare at us, I mean they stare, they stop, turn around, follow us, and sometimes even ask her if we’re together. I’m talking random strangers. Not friends, not acquaintances. Like this: “Hello. Are you two…on a date?” They never ask me because Koreans habitually assume that Westrons can’t speak their language. When she replies they sometimes nod and say ungg! and leave us, but others deepen their inquiries—“How did you meet?”— they can’t imagine how Koreans and foreigners get together, since they themselves limit their interactions with foreigners to occasional glares on the subway—“What do your parents think? Are you planning to get married? Have kids? Die in each other’s arms?
I thought it was bad to be stared at before when I was just a white piece of driftwood floating alone through a sea of Koreans, but that was nothing like this, now that I’ve got one of them hanging off my arm. It’s inevitable that word gets back to her husband—your wife’s holding hands with some white guy!—but Man-eup avoids us both, and does his best to ignore the two strange lumps growing toward the back of his scalp. At home, when the weekend ends, Taeja can’t look him in the eye. Our lives have become a miniature 19th century novel.
Namyong is too busy with his books, and he’s also planning a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, from Vladivostok to Petersburg, stopping along the way to see the giant Lenin head and the Mongolian gers as well as the other delights of the Russian Far East, a daring prospect for any traveler and especially one of Asian extraction, thanks to the skinheads that infest the region. But travel conquers all. What better way is there to learn about the world? Far preferrable to imprisonment in your high school, memorizing random test material like crazy and then forgetting it all the very instant you finish the college entrance exam. Never mind the prescriptions of the Tao Te Ching—
Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out of the window
One can see the way of heaven.
Taeja and I don’t avoid talking about the future—we attack it head-on! Divorce and then a quick legal marriage, no ceremony, no relatives necessary. That’s the plan. I can quit my job without leaving the country and start up some sort of import-export business with Taeja by my side, taking in whatever from China and reselling it to Koreans or Americans. She was lucky to be born in Korea, and I was lucky to be born in America; together we can make the most of our fortunate citizenships. We’re gonna be rich and we’re gonna be happy. I learn Korean by reading her exquisite poems, and she does the opposite with my whiny prose. We begin to critique one another’s literature, although she doesn’t need my opinion to shine like a sun of poetry—a woman, a poet, whose aurora-like aura you can see wavering around her in gilded undulations, if you just look at her while squinting your eyes the right way.
When I run into Namyong outside the café on a rainy Saturday things are uncomfortable, even as I hold the door open for him. He hasn’t caught on just yet, but I feel like kind of a sleaze for boning his mom, especially since he and I were born only a few years apart. He heads straight for the English shelf, pulls out a thick Norton anthology that no one has touched in years, flings it on a table in the café with a loud thump of angst, and starts thumbing through its thin pages, seeking to escape from his context, his circumstance—pursuing inspiration, enthusiasm, the ecstatic writing of people whose hands were guided by the gods, as though by scanning these barcodes his own mind might display the same digitized beauty. To comprehend even a couple of paragraphs on one of these pages would make him one of the best non-native speakers in the country, but he can barely say hello to me, let alone discuss John Wyclif. So should I talk with him? Try to bond with him somehow? Help him with the first English translation of the Bible? “For God louede so the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.”—the sort of thing Korean college students study in literature courses taught by Korean professors, though I’ll be damned if anyone knows why.
Outside the great windows the cars gleam through the rain, hydroplaning.
I start taking more days off of work, usually on Mondays and Fridays, and I have a few thousand dollars saved up so it doesn’t matter if I lose that awful job. I hate being away from her. I can’t believe that I’m in love with a woman twice my age, and neither can my friends or my parents. But everyone needs someone to love, age is just a number (once you’ve passed the age of legal consent!), and my grandmother got married for the first time in her late seventies.
Love accelerates the winter. The days flow down like hourglass sand. Spring. I can understand the signs around me and express basic thoughts in Korean. I’m still somehow working at that school, since it would be expensive to get a new apartment. Taeja has encouraged me to do a better job and take pride in my work, as public school teachers have some of the better salaries in the magical land of Korea, which is also sometimes known as Opposite World. Taeja comes to Deokcheon and stays the night in Mr. Noser’s apartment. She almost never sees Man-eup, who’s making up for lost time on Korean-language mail-order bride websites, refuges of farmers and older men; while Namyong’s locomotive barrels through northern blizzards, the cowcatcher breaching snowdrifts.
We wake up together and life isn’t so horrible anymore. Laughter isn’t an uncommon phenomenon, even at work, and I’ve begun to write pages that I’m not so ashamed of. Happiness has made her younger, and a broad smile is ready to bloom on her face at any moment. Her poetry is published and excites some interest because it’s obviously about a foreigner, which is scandalous.
Summer. I decide to sign on for another year, and no longer think of how it feels inside the airplanes taking off from Gimhae. Ms. Yoon and I don’t mind one another, nor do I mind the kids at the school, nor even the old people everywhere else. Taeja and I have hatched new plans related to tutoring. If we get married I can change my visa and rake in mountains of cash tutoring elementary school students, then go on long vacations to wherever. The plan can’t fail. People here are crazy about English, and tutoring is the easiest gig on the planet. We could use her café. We never argue.
We travel to Italy together for two weeks, have an amazing time, and decide to stay. We’ve both got money stowed away, we don’t give a damn about our future, we can make this work!
Here, in the outside world, away from Korea, our adventures begin, voyaging across Europe, Russia, the Middle East, down into Africa! And I write about it all, and for once people actually read!