Hell Is a Stairway in Jeonju
by Das Messer
“Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
As charmed as I am by the good looking English boy playing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for me in his dorm room after a night of chatter and cheap beer, I’m sorely aware that the curfew is seven minutes away and I’m in no position to be breaking the rules here. I must return to my room lest I’m thrown out of the program. I leap off the bed and dash for the west end of the corridor, dodging others who are stumbling back just in time. The elevator’s too far gone – I’ll have to sprint up the stairs to make it back in time. Panting and giggling, I picture my sweet South Carolinian roomie waiting at the door, arms akimbo, tapping her foot and drumming a finger on her wristwatch.
With two minutes and no breath to spare I make it to the thirteenth floor and discharge a massive sigh of relief, before learning that the stairwell door is locked. Shit. Twelfth? Locked. Fourteenth? No dice. I don’t understand why these doors are locked; there is no rationale for this, but it’s the least of my worries now. Perhaps in Korea door handles work backwards? Nope. Shit. Relax – there’s no way this is really happening.
It’s a quarter-past curfew and there’s not a stir on campus. We’re just two days into orientation, and obviously no one is quite brave or stupid enough to break a rule that could ruin their chances of being here in the first place. So I remove my boots and carry them to avoid loud clacking as I run up to the eighteenth floor and back again to check every door – three times, to be exact. I have now been trapped for twenty minutes, not nearly long enough to be defeated – and certainly not long enough to abandon a sense of humor about this little mishap. A balcony! Cigarettes! Reprieve! Regroup:
Are you really trapped in a stairwell…at a university…in the middle of Korea? FUCK! How did this happen?! Never mind that. What are your options? You really shouldn’t draw attention to the fact that you’ve broken curfew, especially not smelling like that awful beer. Noise is out of the question. Oh, dear god – I’m trapped! Will anyone notice my absence? Are there windows to climb out of? They’re too small. You are on a balcony. Could you scale this wall? Don’t be ridiculous, like you’d even attempt it. Jesus! How’d you manage to cock this whole thing up in two days?!
I’m tired. Jetlag hasn’t worn off yet and I’ve been running up and down endless stairs for thirty minutes at least. I rest on the floor. It’s well below freezing, bitter enough for me to imagine the cold seeping in through my back and gripping my lungs with pneumonia. I wonder if I should sleep, but almost simultaneously agree not to as I imagine somebody happening upon this shoeless and shivering girl, curled up and snoring in a stairwell.
My estimate is that around 7 a.m. someone must come through some door. That gives me another five hours to occupy myself between these walls and stairs and eighteen useless doors. My inherent Truman-show paranoia has relieved me of the concern that surveillance could give me away. No cameras, no eyes, I’m free .
Panic eventually settles into resignation and I’ve somehow relaxed into my environment. All that’s left to do is to keep awake and keep busy. Thank God for cigarettes and music. Although, my iPod is so cold it won’t allow me to change the music from Radiohead, which is novel for about the first hour.
Laughing aloud, the echo forces me to note that I’m only coping by maintaining a sense of humor – which is a relief until I realize how out of character it is. Apparently I want to be someone who laughs at this sort of thing, so much so that I’ll perform even when there’s no one around to watch.
Hours ago I sat in a bar with a boy I’d just met, wading through frustrated attempts to express an answer to the question I would come to hear so often: “So, what’s your story?” I try to swat it away, but it’ll pester me until I confront it. “Uhhhh…I’m not…sure.”
Over the past few days I hadn’t spared a thought for anything that wasn’t frantic packing or desperate fare-welling. I lofted through airport smoking lounges, waiting rooms, sleepless flights and bus rides – enough time, one might think, to have given the question some consideration. But somewhere amidst this travel purgatory, the answer to that particular question seemed to have evaporated.
Any time over the previous six months I’d have been able to give a fairly cogent answer, dense with drama and intrigue and carefully gleaned identity markers, but right now I’m stumped. I’m thrust from my purgatory into a world where others might want to know who I am. There’d be hundreds more interrogations if I survived this hell, and now I have the time to design my answers.
I’m left flicking through memories and other little leaflets of personal information that could be even slightly definitive. But, like the dog-eared brochure at the bottom of a rucksack after a great trip, memories have little depth after the fact. Dear god, what is my story?! What the hell am I doing here?!
Secretly I consider my move abroad as an act of severe cowardice, in fact, the whole execution of it was in the end a product of pure fear. Not of what I’d be leaving behind, nor of whatever future awaits me, but of being seen as irresolute. I’d planned this ‘adventure’ for so long, I thought that if I didn’t follow through I’d be someone who lacked commitment and integrity, a particularly tender exposed nerve. I reproached myself when hesitant: It’s too late: you’ve already told everyone you’re going. If you don’t you’ll look like a flake.
I’d thought that this was my little secret until one of my final conversations with my mother. She had no reason to suspect my doubts, but one day as I was readying she said, “I don’t want you to think that you have to do this just because you said you would. There’s no shame in changing your mind.” I quietly disagreed, brushed the notion off and promptly boarded a plane to the middle of nowhere, for reasons that probably meant something to me at some point, but are lost on me now.
The rules of the University prohibit access to the roof, but after hours of hemming and hawing I decide I’ve been a coward for too long and it’s time to venture out. The cold amplifies the thrill and I shake off lingering fatigue. The hundreds of people sleeping beneath me will probably wake to be riddled with similar questions. I take a minute to muster gratitude for the opportunity I have to deal with mine in peace. Somehow earnest moments like these take on a more grandiose character in fresh air. I close my eyes, stretch my arms open and lift my head to the sky. You look like an idiot.
The horizon hides behind sheets of ample mist, but closer, peeking through the brume are several neon red crosses.
I’m baffled. They offend my senses, but remind me of installations I’d seen before, by an artist I once knew. Of course neon Jesus followed me to Asia. I recall part of the conversation with the English guy:
“Do you believe in God?”
“No”, I spat.
“There’s no good reason to.”
My answer startled me, far more than his question. Of course it was the truth, but really, it wasn’t the content that was surprising. Curt and self-assured are not things that I have ever been. My response was brimming with a commitment-to-rationality that up until that moment I’d only dreamed of.
This man seems unmoved by these sorts of questions; why are his answers so crisply ironed out? After light interrogation I learned that this would be his second year as an ‘expat’, apparently resulting in a neatly packaged narrative about who he is, who he isn’t anymore, where he came from and where he hopes to go. He’d even made a short documentary named Expat; he’s clearly onto something I haven’t even considered yet.
Weird… I’m an ‘expat’. From my brief time with others here, I’ve noticed that the title seems to carry in it a whole world of information. I begin wondering then: What will they assume of me? What do I assume of them?
We clearly share some sort of camaraderie: We’ve all undertaken to inhabit this strange temporal bubble, on the other side of the world no less. For many, the “living abroad” stint may only be a year-or-two-long. For others: indefinite, and for a few: permanent. For all of us, there’s a ‘pre-expat’ life-and-identity that’s been abandoned in some sense, and for many of us there’ll be a ‘post-expat’ life-and-identity in which this will all be nothing but a quaint memory.
As an ‘expat,’ the duration of my stay will weigh heavily on my experiences: What activities I’ll prioritize, how I’ll approach relationships, how seriously I’ll consider consequences, and most poignantly: how I’ll present myself to others.
To say I haven’t occasionally toyed with the idea of being somebody else would simply be untrue. Of course, this isn’t unique to the expat experience, but what it reveals now is that this temporary reality seems to come with a special brand of freedom that we weren’t given back home.
I wonder about how being aware of Time tends to alter the way we behave. How it determines what we divulge to others and how it turns significant moments of our lives into a kind of two-dimensional literature. It makes relating to others an exercise in active imagination where we’re forced to fill in the moth-holes created between their experiences and their accounts thereof. We’ll blame it for warping our identities, and likewise thank it for washing us of some of life’s great misfortunes: hangovers, grief, fear, love, flight delays, naiveté, conflict, cold showers, identity crises, and the like.
My thoughts dim as time wheezes on. The urgency of this exercise is significantly dulled by exhaustion. I nod at the sunrise and return to the stairs, rest my head on my knees and tuck my chin into my hoodie, hoping vainly for my own breath to warm me. Simpler realities requiring less energy creep into my drowsy reveries: The field trip is in about an hour, some or other ‘cultural village’ excursion…This is going to make a great story when I’m out…I best make my way to the first floor.
I do, and at around 7:15 I’m released from my brooding: some poor, unsuspecting cleaning lady opens the door and before there’s time for angels to belt out arias I bound for the elevator.
I reassure myself as I get on that the powers-that-be must have reached saturation point of dramatic irony: there’s absolutely no way I could get stuck in an elevator as well.
In what feels like ten minutes flat I make it to my room, soak in a heavenly shower, dress and head for the cafeteria to knock back three tiny paper cups of god-awful coffee. Hundreds of jet-lagged, sullen-faced 20-somethings hum about, absorbed in their own grappling of morning consciousness.
I enter daylight with unforgiving eyelids, wise to the fact that the significance of the ordeal is being diluted with every second forward. It doesn’t matter now; I’m more concerned with the whereabouts of my sunglasses and the day of bibimbap and hanji paper ahead.
Before I get in line for the bus, I spare a thought for the stairwell and its demons: once in a while we’ll find ourselves in moments like those–trapped, frozen and suspended; exploring null histories and glaring into a void of a future. Much like the rare and brief moments we’re able to call ourselves a graduand, a bride, an expat or a stairwell refugee, they’ll quickly thaw and collapse into more soon-to-be weathered pages of a narrative written and never revised. A door will crack open and we’ll bound for what comes next, leaving those temporary titles in the dust.