The Beat December 2002
Today neighbors put out reed mats with sliced persimmons to dry in the autumn sun, reminding me of time spent in Nepal where locals lay out mats of unshelled rice, wheat and millet for trucks to run-over thus separating the hulls. The bright orange persimmons are speckled in black as I look on from a distance. Raisins perhaps? I get closer and the speckles fly, buzzing around me before settling back to lay more eggs on our Chuseok holiday snacks.
Fall is here, the time of cold winds, when cane grass on mountaintops turns coarse and crunchy and the scent of burning plastic brings memories of burning leaves back home. Fall, I think, invokes indescribable yearning in almost everyone, yearning to be alone with the sky and the trees, to breathe deeply and recollect anything and everything. But for me, here in Korea, fall also represents a time to begin holding it in so as to avoid a cold toilet seat. It is a time when I should accustom myself to not showering for days. Both shower and toilet are located outside, and of course neither are heated.
When I’d first visited my wife’s house I had problems with the bathroom because of knee space, the low stairway above the door, and the piles of boxes in front of it. I was told to use the shower drain, but had to look out for my future mother-in-law. I’d see her approaching, have to hold, zip up and pretend to be washing my hands. One day I went into the courtyard to piss in the shower and found my future mother-in-law in a squat, pissing and grinning at me without a shred of guilt.
* * *
My buddy and his wife hired a shaman to cleanse their house of lurking spirits. He and another friend had split a hefty jug of wine earlier. I missed the fun but heard about it from these two very different sources. Buddy number one described an intensely spiritual experience with family and in-laws present, with a cute, rotund ajumma shaman piercing the very depths of his soul. Buddy number two described a drunken white man being beaten with a dead fish and a large cucumber, by a wailing and feathered old Navajo priestess.
I wait for the bus and a horde of middle schools boys and girls slyly nudge each other, checking out the white man. I hear some boy whispers “hello.” Friends giggle approval. A girl smacks the boy on the back. Then another hello and another and soon hellos chirp out like a chorus of tiny peeper frogs in a pond. I grin at one, I grin at two. I wink at a cute little girl and she shrieks. Her friends say they‘re jealous.
The bus approaches and I ask in Korean if it goes to my destination. The kids flip when I do this. “He knows Korean!” they say, pulling each other from side to side, slapping each other, climbing on top of each other, release of the pent up energies suppressed in school.
I love it. I don‘t know if I could live without the charm I feel from the Korean people‘s daily extroversions. If I speak in the local dialect the average Korean might impulsively bust a back flip. If tell students I eat dog soup they might adopt me. The Koreans have me dialed. They know what I want, how to keep me. Without this attention I‘d have left long ago. Lord knows what other country people are so ecstatic to see whites.
Imagine going to a Taco Bell and saying to some tattooed ex-con that you love tamales, as he horks in your burrito. Tell a Korean American at a rice restaurant that you love kimchi and he‘ll tell you a refill costs three dollars. I recall getting directions during a visa run in Japan. The first nine people I asked for directions ran away saying, “no no no English!” If I ask a decrepit old Korean ajumma how to get to McDonalds, she‘ll escort me five blocks, sit me down and buy me a burger before asking if all foreigners have hairy chests.