“My very chains and I grew friends…”
—Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon
I thought Korea was the worst mistake of my life when I first came here. “It was the worst, most painful, mind-destroying, horrible moment!” As I recounted in my first book, I flew into Gimhae in the middle of the blazing summer, and spent six months surrounded by the filth and garbage in western Busan, my misery only occasionally relieved by the friendships I made, though it was likewise compounded by my memory of the joy of life in liberal arts school, where I spent four years climbing trees, talking about and reading and writing books, and re-enacting several times daily Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. Life was a dream. In Korea it became a nightmare.
Escaping to Indochina for a few weeks and then finally getting together with a nice Korean girl changed all that. I wish I could say that I came to appreciate this country thanks to some inner transformation that anyone can duplicate—“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”—but living in a tiny apartment in western Busan and working at a public school where I was screamed at for four hours a day, five hours a week, by hordes of children, in the company of teachers who (from our first meeting) made little attempt to conceal their complete disdain for me, did little to make this place endearing. I counted the days until my contract ended, thought several times daily of “pulling a runner”, and spent more time than you would think gazing out across the Nakdong River at the planes taking off from Gimhae. I found solace in whining, constantly, as well as by perusing blogs that never cease to criticize this place. My wife changed all that.
And on my occasional pilgrimages back to America I realized how Korean I had become. At the airport in Detroit I was amazed at the tallness, fatness, and contentedness, of the people around me. How come they aren’t all fighting each other while they wait line?, how come they aren’t all glaring at each other judgmentally?, how come they’re wearing colorful clothing?, how come they seem relatively pleased with themselves?, I wondered. I moved to Gyeongju, and ceased to notice the garbage, phlegm, and vomit as much as before, though that simply might be because there’s a little less of it here than back in the cesspit that is western Busan. Finally, by the grace of a miracle whose awesome mystery still lies far beyond the grasp of my worldly intellect, I somehow landed a coveted university job which I continue to believe I do not deserve.
Now four years have passed. I am twenty-five. I have spent almost a fifth of my life here; that makes me, more or less, twenty percent Korean, which means that there’s now a little Korean voice inside of me at odds with the graduate of the incredibly liberal liberal arts school. One part of me thinks everything related to Dokdo is incredibly stupid; another likes singing the Dokdo song. I ask students to address me by name but inwardly wince whenever I don’t hear myself addressed as “professor”. I speak and understand some Korean and still recoil with disbelief when the perfect gibberish pouring out of their mouths and my own makes sense to me. One part wants to wander the world in shorts and a t-shirt while another is terrified of leaving the house without a laundered suit. One part thinks people should be free to look however they like; another believes a woman is a prostitute if she bares the slightest hint of cleavage, while a man who does not shave is obviously homeless, and dark skin is always a sign of laziness and poverty. Animals are dirty; animals must be saved. The list goes on.
I can not only eat, but also enjoy, Korean food for breakfast. I become overly excited when I encounter people from exotic foreign countries: while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk I overheard two young men speaking Japanese and had to restrain myself from randomly screaming that I thought Kurosawa was the most amazing filmmaker ever. I feel a compulsion to visit Mount Baekdu. The slightest delay is intolerable. My child must be the best student. Living in a nice Hanok house in the country would be cool. Money is important. I cannot gain respect without first possessing the nicest, fastest, and most expensive car on the market.
The consciousness of the half-peninsula flows through me, and I think through it, absorbing a little here while pushing out the rest there: the craziest thing about this transformation of chains to friends is the realization I’ve been feeling lately that there is no need to return to America permanently. When I first arrived I was ticking off the seconds to departure, and now I’m fine with sticking around for the foreseeable future, an idea that only came to me in nightmares in the beginning when I saw myself eventually turning into one of the angry old Korean men sitting on a public bus in a heavy old-fashioned suit and hat and tie, glaring across the aisle of time at the young white lazy foreign youth who’s obviously come to our country to steal our money and our women: and for no other purpose.