The other day I found myself running through the streets of Gyeongju in search of a bathroom, after consuming two cups of coffee and about a liter’s worth of water over the course of an hour. I burst into my wife’s parents’ house through the unlocked door, said hello politely, and then asked where the bathroom was far too politely, shifting to a higher register reserved only for old people or customers—but there was pleading desperation in my voice, and my calmly-surprised mother-in-law consented at once.
I whipped off my shoes, dashed inside the bathroom, and pissed for far longer than I usually shit.
When I emerged my brother-in-law cracked some kind of a joke, and the Korean woman I was teaching at the time, a friend of the family, refused to translate.
A week later I asked him what he had said, through my wife.
“You broke the toilet!” he replied.
My family-in-law was just sitting down to breakfast, which was delivery Korean Chinese food, best described as popcorn chicken with sweet-and-sour sauce. My mother-in-law asked me if I wanted to join them—”Ian, Food Do Please!”—with a tone suggesting, at last, that after over a year of telling them that I don’t eat meat, she at least has finally gotten the message. My father-in-law will still insist that I devour whatever carcass is set before everyone every single time I join them, and when I commit the sin of refusing to follow his orders, he grows somewhat cross.
But my vegetarianism has been moderated, lately, due to necessity. Two weeks ago we were eating dinner with some relatives who had just spent their entire afternoon catching a ton of fish from a nearby river. They brought the fish home in the evening, and when we arrived they were gutting and cleaning them on the floor before our eyes. My father-in-law insisted that I eat. Despite some reservations about the plainly visible level of pollution in Korea’s bodies of water—the rivers best resemble oil slicks filled with icebergs of styrofoam—I consented, because, as I reasoned, perhaps hypocritically, these people had gone out and worked all day to get this food. They had really earned it, and they weren’t skittish about killing animals in order to eat. The fish hadn’t been raised on a farm or a factory, but they had lived what were probably rather full fish lives, and had died as a result of losing the Darwinian game to human beings. That the relatives had caught so many fish using just fishing poles—enough to feed six people—attested to the health of the fish population in the river they had visited. So I ate. I enjoyed.
I eat bibimbap, or rice and vegetables with an egg and hot sauce, once a day. Denjang stew, a delicious tofu concoction, is nearly daily, and almost always has little bits of beef floating inside, which I try not to consume. I ate a pretty good pizza last night—with no meat, but plenty of cheese. Sometimes I can’t resist ramen noodles, even if I feel as though something inside of me has died whenever I finish eating them. My vegetarianism cannot be perfect here, and my father-in-law knows it, which is one reason he always tries to undermine me. But I try, and I think I make a difference.
College classes start tomorrow. They’re the first credit courses I’ve ever taught. I’m nervous, but I’ve put plenty of time into figuring out what to do, and I think I’ll be okay. A. and I are planning to buy a few nice suits this week—once we get our hands on some money!—to help facilitate the transition from teenage gardener and dishwasher to twentysomething college professor, which is still undergoing.
Thanks to all this preparation I didn’t have time to edit my book, and thanks to that I stopped sleeping. Something inside of me automatically revolts if I do not work on a novel every single day. I cannot sleep more than six hours. I feel exhausted, angry, nervous, sad—but if I take a few hours to really write, my soul releases my body from the shackles of sleeplessness. I finally made the time to edit the book two days ago, and slept for ten hours the following night, after a week or two of bleary-eyed restlessness. I remember the same thing happened to me in college.
I have been learning Chinese rather intensively for the last week and a half, which is another explanation for my long absence here. Intensively means forty-five minutes of conversation five days a week; most of that time involves repeating the same couple of sentences I manage to come up with over and over again, until I can get them right. A wise man wrote that learning Chinese is “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of springsteel, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.” It may be difficult, but it’s never boring, and it’s always exciting to feel yourself dip your thoughts inside the seas of another tongue; it feels like I’m swimming, somehow, in a very deep ocean that I cannot see, whenever I start speaking one of these ridiculous Asian languages.
At the same time I’m studying a Korean textbook and going over the grammar points with one of my wife’s friends—yesterday I learned how to say “I decided to bla”, “It was so bla that I blaed”, “As I am bla, I should bla”, “No matter how bla it is, I should still bla”, “By using bla, you can bla”—which has meant that I’ve been wanting to speak more Korean with my son. Strangely, very strangely, it actually seems easier and more logical to order him to eat something in Korean rather than English, although he doesn’t respond to commands in either language.
He says mom and dad, sometimes randomly. He may be saying “bap”, the Korean word for food, but we’re not sure. All efforts to teach him sign language have failed, but he claps his hands if we do. Last week he learned how to crawl on all fours and also managed to pull himself up to a standing position, using couches or chairs or whatever he could find. This means now that when we put him to bed he just stands up, holds onto the edge of his crib, and yells at us, sometimes for twenty or thirty minutes—even after he’s already fallen asleep on our shoulders. The wife always wants to go in and pick him up. She always wants to spoil him. She thinks this will help him, but you and me know, reader, that all children must obey!
Since this tutoring is going so well with both Korean and Chinese, I’m thinking more seriously of getting tutors for him when he gets older. Instead of going to school he could learn at home or in study rooms in the mornings—we would really just need a math and a science teacher, as I think I could take care of everything else—and then head out to taekwondo or fencing hogwons or whatever in the afternoons to socialize and make friends. It’s still a long way off, and I won’t be surprised if I accept the ridiculousness of Korean public education, but still, it’s pretty cheap to just tutor your kids here—so long as you don’t need to hire an English tutor—and I really think that’s the best way to go, just from personal experience. Talking and asking questions one-on-one with an expert for a few hours a week trumps everything. How could you not learn, under such circumstances? Since the tutoring in Chinese and Korean has been so pleasant, I’ve also been thinking now and again of taking the GRE, and getting myself a smart Korean to teach me all the math I missed out on thanks to my youthful frailties.
God, anything else? A. and I want to go to Japan to visit one of her friends from Australia, a Japanese woman who spends most of the year in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, but we probably don’t have the money to do it. In continuing my Kurosawa retrospective, I watched and loved Yojimbo. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish Nostromo, even though I’m just thirty pages from the end. Gyeongju is warming up. I want to exercise. After talking about Barack Obama with a friend I found myself thinking that I was a Barack Obama supporter. Etcetera.