So I wrote a novel while I was away…
I’ve just received my annual blog stats for 2012, and it seems the site received about 5,900 visitors during the year. Thank you all! This figure might just prove inspirational enough for me to begin posting again. I’ve been reading a lot lately, so I may even have something to say…
In ten more days I’ll be on vacation, my second semester over. Summer camp, which I just yesterday finished preparations for, is still to come, but I’m really quite looking forward to it. Working three hours a day during the hottest spell of the year is not something to be sniffed at, especially in my new-found capacity to wear t-shirts to school without drawing complaints.
In turn, come September, the school year will resume once again, with only minor differences in personnel. Amongst these will be a great number of foreign teachers, some of whom I have known and spent significant parts of the last year in the company of. It might appear a strange time to be leaving, right in the middle of the academic year, but many of these departees are simply staying true to their word.
While most people arrived in Korea open to the possibility of outstaying their original contract, there were very few conclusively set on it from the beginning. In fact, amongst my fellow arrivals, the majority had their sights fixed on a single year here. Of these, almost all have been torn for weeks on end, flipping between welcome home parties and staying put, between several months of hedonistic travel or one more Korean season, with some ultimately reconsidering and signing away another twelve months. The lure of the peninsula, it seems, is quite substantial.
For those who stayed true and will soon find themselves at home, priorities have switched from re-signing bonuses to job applications, from larger apartments to living with parents once again. I had originally hoped to travel home this summer, but sky-high fuel prices put paid to that idea until at least January. The formalities being undergone by leavers, predominantly in the form of week-long visa extensions and pension repayments, seem utterly superfluous in the face of another year by the beach.
I remain set on a two-year limit for myself, however, and still harbour ambitions that I’ll be able to drag myself away relatively smoothly when it eventually comes to saying goodbye. When the time does come for CVs to be dusted off and cover letters drafted, I hope I’ll be able to give a concise account of my time here. If nothing else, the proof is in the fact that I’ve chosen to renew.
After all, it’s not as if I’ve spent the better part of a year let loose with unlimited cash and scope for mischief. Life here is about routine and the simple pleasures, perhaps even more so than at home. Despite all the chrome and flat screens, it’s still a rustic old country.
When I turn to look back and summarise my experience under the watchful eye of a potential employer, I’ll do my best to convey such thoughts. Achieving a sense of equilibrium in foreign surroundings is not something to be sniffed at, but by that I mean a real balance between the grit and the shelter having blue eyes affords you.
Visiting hard to reach places and genuinely straying from the beaten track, regardless of how treacherous those at home perceive the tiniest detail of life out here to be, is something admirable. If you can also find time to document it for future reference, then all the better, both for you and those conducting the interviews from across the table.
Behind the mountain,
A blue house sits in darkness,
Waves murmur and die.
Bending in the heat,
Plastic fills the alleyway,
Salty like the sea.
Neon southlands lit,
Rest upon the frozen Han,
Touch the earth yourself.
It seems a little odd to choose to write on one of Murakami’s short stories, seeing as his reputation is staked almost entirely on a mastery of the longer literary form. It was with curiosity, more than anything else, that I recently purchased a collection of his shorter works, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman when visiting Seoul. Spanning three decades, and containing a great deal of his literary gamut, it is no surprise that the tales contained within are hugely diverse, both in quality and subject matter.
Written in 1996, The Seventh Man is, typically for Murakami, concerned with the world’s inscrutable contours, traces of the odd and surreal that lurk around life’s margins. Inspired by a daydream he had whilst surfing, it deals with childhood trauma and its consequential spectre during adulthood, namely the loss of a friend to the clutches of the ocean in the midst of a tropical storm.
It’s far from the only island in the world, but there are few more quintessentially Japanese images than the wave. As such, it is of little surprise that Murakami should use such a natural device to illustrate the objectification of fear, regret and self-doubt. Beginning with the winds of a typhoon, the protagonist and his close friend K – another allusion to Murakami’s esteem for Kafka – are entranced by the gentle lull of the tide when they venture outside amidst the eye of the storm.
Soon enough, the waves return, in the guise of a ‘huge snake with its head held high’. The protagonist has fled in abject terror, having first noticed their imminent arrival, and is unable to bring himself to fetch K, sentencing him to be snatched by the ocean. Glimpsing his friend moments later, frozen in a watery cell, he is overcome by guilt and an abstract, boundless terror.
Recent events in Japan render this subject all the more salient, of course, but it would be erroneous to limit the relevance of the tale to such specific instances. Fear is the subject under scrutiny here, rather than the particular intricacies of tsunamis. The watery nightmare’s that haunt the man throughout adulthood are testament to its unrelenting manifestations.
In time, after years of self-imposed exile, he is able to revisit his hometown and the memories of his departed friend. When Murakami likens the mental convalescence this brings to the collapse of a dilapidated house, the metaphor is both precise and infinitely playful. Despite the esoteric setting, by highlighting the fundamental need to reject fear and refuse the surrender of that which is precious to us, he is dealing with universal convictions.
If the fear at the heart of the story renders it haunting to the reader, then the serenity that comes both before and after is truly beautiful. The trick is, as Murakami so expertly points out, to confront the terror head on, not to shelter or avert our eyes. The wave, as extraordinary and contemporarily resonant as it may seem, is nothing more than a manifestation of this, arriving suddenly and attempting to overwhelm us. In this, as in any such situation, we are granted the choice either to doggedly resist and dig in our heels, or mimic the shaking boy who hid behind a breakwater as his friend was swallowed by the Pacific.
I could be James Dean in Korea,
My tongue’s the source of my powers.
But I don’t have much time for the language,
If I’m drinking for forty-eight hours.
The school pays the rent for my housing,
It’s their fault if something’s amiss.
Granted the means to live better than most,
I still come home smelling of piss.
I feel like James Dean in Korea,
I’ve little to do except roam.
Student debt is no longer an issue,
When six thousand miles from home.
The temples are of little interest,
My country’s so much more refined.
Except when it comes to the owners of homes,
Or drugs and the level of crime.
Just like the James Dean of Korea,
If I take my foot off I’ll be dead.
I can go where I want and do as I please,
My only concern a sore head.
When I talk to the women it’s easy,
As if I’m unable to bore.
I forget all about being slumped at my desk,
Each weekday from one until four.
I’m the James Dean of Korea,
You’ve got to admire my cheek.
What else to do but live fast and die young,
On four hundred thousand a week.
So different when inside the classroom,
Outside I’m at one with the mobs.
We’re all like James Dean in Korea,
Rebels without real jobs.
Having never read Roth’s shorter works before, I was a little apprehensive when I picked up Goodbye, Columbus – his 1959 novella. Based in the increasingly affluent Short Hills area of New Jersey, it is a tale of youthful caprice and religious introspection. Although he had not quite tapped into the carnal vein that would pervade later novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint, sexuality drips from the tale, being concerned as it is with young lovers and the uneasy juxtaposition of true feeling and the pleasures of the flesh.
Straight from the opening, the first meeting and verbal exchange between Brenda Patimkin and Neil Klugman, poolside at a serene country club, it is easy to see why the novella became such an instant success upon its publication in America. Roth’s easy rhythm, keen introspection and spattering of self-doubt stokes the fire quickly into life, resulting in a more or less instantaneous understanding of the characters’ trivial changes in fortune, the serenity of their mid-summer surroundings, as well as the interspersed bouts of ennui.
Neil is an intelligent young man, fresh from a bachelors in philosophy at Rutgers University. Brenda is an all-star daughter from an increasingly wealthy family. Their bond is immediate and deep, so much so that Neil soon finds himself staying for several weeks at the Patimkin household. Living always under the watchful eyes of Mrs Patimkin, he attempts to walk the tightrope of reconciling with the athletic and testosterone fuelled sibling Ron, the curt and focussed Mr Patimkin, and the spoiled-rotten princess of the house, Julie.
The wedding of Ron, the haughtiness of her mother, and the sporadic insecurity of Neil himself all conspire to incrementally expand the perceived gap between the families. Whether exaggerated in Neil’s mind or not, the abundance of oversensitivity comes to intoxicate his and their every movement. There is no grandstanding showdown between any of the characters, but rather a consistent bubbling of mild resentment and hostility, whether in the form of overheard seemingly chiding remarks, or fleeting dinnertime squabbles.
Orthodox and conservative Judaism is a frequently used metaphor for the divisive, but the sense that this rift extends beyond religious habits is unavoidable. Even on the level of basic lust there seems an inexplicable divide between the pair of them, as epitomised by the trip taken to New York’s sweaty, bustling heart in order to buy a diaphragm.
As usual, it is Roth’s comic sense of self-depreciation that shines forth, illuminating the prose to the point where even Neil’s morning shifts inside the sweltering heat of Newark Public Library become moreish affairs. True, some of the more estranged members of the Patimkin household are rather less three-dimensional, but this appeared to me merely a device further illuminating the complexities of the family unit within the thriving Jewish diaspora.
Rather than concentrating on any Woody Allen-esque self-loafing on the part of Roth, the range of jutting priorities stands as that which ought to be the main focus. The true mastery of the tale is the ease at which these jagged, divergent topics are brought into play. Ranging from the overly analytical and capricious nature of young love, to the parsimony and closure of middle-age, they are sewn flawlessly, conjuring a strangely holistic view of a community mired in the esoteric.
Last Sunday, I found myself in the unenviable position of being out in the middle of the night with no means of getting home. As in most such cases, this was largely due to poor planning on my part. Yet, at the same time, I had fallen foul of the idiosyncrasies of the Korean banking system. They operate on a strange rota-like system, you see, with ATMs consequentially unavailable during specific hours of the day depending on the bank in question. This is a fact that I struggle to attach any logic to, and therefore also one that I regularly forget.
In short, I found myself caught amidst the financial witching hour when starting to make my way home on Sunday. Normally, although it does seem to vary depending on the ATM in question, my bank will experience a blackout between 11:30 and 1am. This can be quite inconvenient on Fridays and Saturdays, but I scarcely notice it during the rest of the week. However, being halfway through my four-day weekend – granted by virtue of Buddha’s birthday – I was less than fully aware of my place in the usual routine.
I have since learned that Busan Bank block their customers from accessing funds between 11:30 and 4am on Sundays, a fact greeted with dismay when I learned of it at around 2am. My friends having departed for home, I was left in Seomyeon, some 18km from my home in Haeundae.
The phrase ‘having time to kill’ has always rung a little hollow with me, as I like to think there’s something I should or could be doing with my day at any given point. This was different though. I had a two-hour window in which I could literally do nothing except wander. Thinking back to my previous post about Guy Debord and his Parisian dérives, whereby he would swagger and sway across the French capital, as well as Will Self and his Anglo-American modern-day efforts, it seemed the perfect opportunity. Trudging vaguely towards Nam-gu was the only logical (and I use that word extremely loosely) path.
I already knew my way to Jeonpo, which is one stop in the right direction, so I hoped to be able to simply follow the main thoroughfare onwards from there. It was extremely dark, which made reading many of the street signs impossible, but I still stole the occasional glance, despite part of me wanting to travel completely by candlelight. Doubtless it would have been far easier to do so prior to the automotive age, and therein lies the problem I think. The city of Busan didn’t exist before vehicular imperatives defined the way we move.
In this sense, as obvious as it may sound, it would be a simpler task to experience a dérive in a grand old city such as London or Paris. Despite the plethora of modern-day signage that appears in both, many streets remain untouched – at least fundamentally – from the times when they were first constructed, with the significantly less complex commercial relationships of those bygone days still in evidence. Busan, by contrast, is a series of mountains dissected by tunnels and duel-carriageways, built to propel an ever-growing range of goods and services along an increasingly convoluted trail of supply and demand.
So it was, then, that I soon reached an enormous commercial tunnel, hewn through the mountain that separates the city’s beaches from its commercial heart. I’ve taken the Hwangryeong tunnel countless times in a taxi before, but I’d never bothered to look to my left and check if it had a pedestrian walkway. It doesn’t; I was left with no choice but to go over, hardly a pleasing acknowledgment.
Any ill feeling was quickly swept away, however, by the fascinating neighbourhood located immediately above the tunnel entrance. All asymmetrically piled houses and crooked streets, it couldn’t have been further from the sleek modernity and grid square precision of Haeundae. Considering its proximity to the monolithic glass structures that abound in Seomyeon also, it felt like another place entirely. Almost rural, despite the cacophony of horns and gear changes taking place metres below.
It was here that I truly stopped thinking and, once I had climbed high enough, was able to bask in the silent streets and absence of 24-hour stores with neon-lit windows. Walking for almost 90 minutes through the dark, I felt completely at liberty. As if I could have gone any direction I chose, because there were no fences, security guards, or safety barriers. Debord defines a dérive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances”, and I had certainly achieved this. Leaving the humidity and smell of Seomyeon less than 45 minutes previously, I was now surrounded by an intoxicating hilltop tranquility.
As I began to descend with the contours of the road, the buildings grew gradually taller around me. It was still silent when I reached a sharp turn and spun to face Daeyeon Elementary School. Within a few minutes, I was back on the noisy dual-carriageway that feeds its passengers through Kyungsung, past my own elementary school, on to the front door of the largest department store in the world, before ending up outside the outlet centre that dominates the skyline around my apartment. It had just gone 4am, so I did the decent thing and hailed a cab.
It was only brief and oh so fleeting, but for a moment the ambiance of the city I live in did undergo a profound change. When forced to look at and listen to nothing, it appeared to me an altogether different animal. One through which I could pass freely, subject to no imperatives or compulsions – save the overwhelming urge to take a photograph of a packet of cigarettes masquerading as a prize inside a children’s claw machine.
Living in Korea for 9 months, as will be the case in a fortnight’s time, seems strangely consequential. In the grand scheme of things I suppose it’s not, as I intend to renew my contract for another year in August. Yet, in the sense that I understand it, I appear to have reached a point of equilibrium. Despite having a long way to go before attaining congruous status within Korean society, I’ve recently found there to be an increasing degree of smoothness to my daily life.
Dividing my weekends between Busan and Geoje has brought structure to my time away from work, which in turn has ensured that tasks no longer require detailed planning or inspire the level of apprehension they once did. ‘Culture shock’ left my lexicon months ago, and with good reason. If I need to collect a parcel, buy medicine (or anything else for that matter), navigate an area I’ve never previously been to, or simply engage with a stranger on the street, I do so without thinking, just as I would at home in the UK. In short, life here is far from a struggle. I possess a satisfactory knowledge of the way things work in the city itself – at least enough to now avoid the uncomfortable and distressed looks new arrivals are prone to – as well as the confidence to ask for help in certain situations without feeling a foot tall.
In turn, I think I’ve stepped noticeably out of sync with the UK at last. On the eve of the Royal Wedding, an important event regardless of your position with regards to the UK’s most famous family, it feels for the first time since I arrived like I’m observing something foreign when gazing homeward. Explaining the ceremony and its history to my students this week, it truly seemed as if it were taking place on the other side of the world, despite the plethora of news items and visual media I can call upon to remain informed. Somewhat inevitably, the more seamless my life in Korea becomes, the more difficult it is to imagine events such as these; as if they inch further away whilst I paradoxically grow in comfort. Doubtless this will only grow more pronounced as the months reach double figures, befitting the impracticality of dividing oneself so thoroughly between two far off locations.
Some seem to keep one eye fixed unwaveringly on their homeland, distracting themselves from Korean reality via the constant stream of natal information. Others place little to no value on where they came from, save for the obligatory updates to family members, instead choosing to throw themselves headlong towards one of the country’s dizzy urban centres. The greatest challenge lies in striking a balance between the two, and this is sadly one that only gets larger and more formidable as the weeks become months. I think I’m prepared for the trade-off. I’ll be quite content to return home next year and thoroughly embarrass myself, treading the path of readjustment with notably awkward steps. Just as long as I’ve continued to pass my time in Korea on a similarly smooth and welcoming trajectory.
Incidentally, what price on an errant mobile phone sounding out during the ceremony in Westminster Abbey? I think that’s a cause for severe embarrassment wherever you are in the world, and something I can certainly still relate to.
This morning I was awoken by the alternating strains of a recorded safety announcement and a siren blaring through my apartment’s speaker system. It was 3:30am, and although I couldn’t understand the message being repeated, I presumed it must be a fire-drill. Stepping out into the corridor after picking up my wallet and quickly donning some shoes, I was hurriedly passed by several female residents, each holding cloth rags to their mouths.
Scarcely able to focus, I thought I could discern a vague layer of smoke hovering around a neighbour’s room. I was far too drowsy to be sure, however, as I briskly made my way to the main stairwell. I don’t know much about fire safety, but I distinctly remember being told to avoid elevators in such a scenario. Koreans must have an entirely different strategy when it comes to domestic emergencies, as both were in use when I walked by. Either that or they just really despise stairs, an explanation I’m more inclined to believe having spent many evenings queuing behind shoppers impatiently ascending or descending a single storey.
I still didn’t really understand what was happening as I took my place amongst the other bleary-eyed occupants outside the building’s front entrance. The congregation of taxi drivers that seem to be permanently parked outside were leaning against the bonnets of their cars, smoking and laughing as they always do. Several women with brightly-coloured dogs were peering anxiously in at the lobby, looking for signs of life or further escalation.
Not really knowing what to do with myself, I stared upwardly at the dull edifice puncturing the night sky, squinting as the cold air stung my face. One elderly lady marched purposely through the automatic doors, taking no more than five steps on the tarmac before shaking her head and turning back inside, as if to say “this fire business really isn’t for me”.
Ten minutes later, there were still only about 20 people lined up outside. Some men had begun peering inwards through the glass, and discovered upon opening the door that the alarm could no longer be heard. Three fire engines arrived then, just as I was weighing up whether to return to bed and risk the ire of the building’s security, or remaining steadfastly outside with only my increasingly cold extremities for company. They upset the row of taxis as they pulled up, ordering one ancient driver to shift from bonnet to front seat and move his vehicle a few yards down the road. Promptly disappearing inside with their pickaxes, they admonished the recalcitrant chauffeurs on the way.
Next came a police car, swiftly depositing two officers. They surveyed the outside of the building, before waving in an anxious family who had clearly become so cold while waiting that potential inferno now seemed the preferable option. The others took this as their cue, swiftly moving from the arctic haven of the pavement or emerging from the Familymart which had stayed open the entire time.
I followed the officers inside, standing beside them in the elevator as we all made our way to the 5th floor. It was still a little smokey as we emerged, and I was relieved to see them turn the opposite way as they continued on their investigative path. Within moments I was back in bed, wondering how serious it had all been. For a brief and thoroughly inconvenient moment, I felt like Walter Willis escaping the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard.