• Reports from Real Life
  • Home
  • Stories
  • Themed Collections
  • Visual Arts
  • Questions?


Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Back You are here: Home Reports from Real Life Oh, The Things We've Seen! Travel Writing Aimless / Phoneless / Loveless
Friday, 15 July 2011 13:38

Aimless / Phoneless / Loveless

Written by 
Rate this item
(0 votes)

I suppose I wouldn't have it any other way, either. I've been in South Korea for almost eight months, which doesn't even feel real, but that also means I'm almost seven months late on my planned monthly update. It's something I meant to do once a month, make a proper post here, but, such is life, and so it goes. I've never been good at that, keeping people updated, keeping my life orderly.

Anyrate, what has my life been? Many things. Many glorious, many horrible, many embarrassing and awkward, but mostly it's been the same, defying timezones and cultures, rhyme and reason, logic and rain.

It rains often now. The season for it, so I'm told. I've already gone through four umbrellas, which is a fitting metaphor for my life in Korea: I lose everything.

I've lost the tangible things like clothes and money and myself. Mostly myself. Always myself, losing him everywhere we go. These wild yddes, so hard to watch, so difficult to keep together, so carried by illogical and idiotic whims, following the scent of kindness, the promise of warmth, only to find himself completely lost in a room full of strangers. Every time I go downtown, I lose my friends, or, more accurately put, I disappear, off doing random things with random people, potential friends I'll never see again, who I never even meant to know, and who I won't remember after ten minutes, who become a complete mystery after ten hours, a placeholder for time I lost to this city that swallows me more and more each day.


Gwangju. I like it here. I feel at home, even when I'm so consistently and constantly reminded how not at home I am, how even the simple becomes herculean. I live on the outskirts and it takes me forty minutes by bus to reach city center, which is where all the humans do humanly things, where friends become friends and lovers become lovers or enemies or just embarrassed.

karaokeThe main places for foreigners to go are Speakeasy and German Bar and, for those who want to regret, there's Bubble Bar. Speakeasy is kind of the center, where the west exists in Gwangju. Go friendless and you won't remain so. Kind people, mostly, who enjoy a good time, trying desperately to stay sane in the face of the peculiar predicament of asian expatriation. German Bar's owned by a Korean who studied in Germany to make beer and makes, I'd say, the best beer in Korea. At least the best beer [read: only beer] that I enjoy drinking here. Where Speakeasy is more like a party, German Bar is more sociable. Less crowded, quieter, and more suited for sitting and talking. The owner, Song, sits by the door all night, welcoming every person who comes in with a smile and a handshake, and, if you're lucky, you'll get him singing his heart out at 3am to Korean ballads. They both have their place and they're literally one hundred feet from one another. Then there's Bubble Bar, which is more like a dance club. Sweaty, dirty, awful, desperate, hilarious, embarrassing, gruesome, full of potential. It's where sweaty people grind against other sweaty people, where desperate foreigners creep out pretty Korean girls who just wanted to practice their english. It's where no one needs a name or a history, just bodies and motion, because, sometimes, there's nothing that can be said that you couldn't express through touch. And I kind of love it there, and we all do, even those who say they hate it, even those who legitimately hate it. Life wouldn't be the same without that cesspool, and, somehow, every night ends there. Even when you have no intention of dancing or going to where music you dislike is played too loud, you just kind of poke your head in to see who's there, what kind of trouble they've gotten into, what mistakes they're about to make.

And that's the nightlife, the social scene, at least as I've seen it. Really, though, I spend most of my week at work or by myself. It sounds sad, maybe, and, in some ways, it is. It's been disappointing, really, in certain lights.


I did not come here to teach. Teaching was an excuse to go see Asia. Unfortunately, I work so much that I've not really been able to see much of this side of the world. I've roamed a bit through Korea, being awesome and foolish, reckless and foppish, and I quite love this country, living here, being here, seeing the many things it has to offer. But I hate working here. I hate my job and I hate my boss, and, some days, I hate children.

My students are mostly good. Mostly. They make it worth it because they can turn a shit day into the happiest moment with just a few words. Even just watching them, it has its own magic quality, the unashamed actions of children, so peculiar and so perfect. And I'm either the greatest or worst teacher to ever teach, laughing and telling jokes no one understands. But then there's the reverse and even your favorite students can make you want to scream, make you want to run away, make you wonder why you ever thought moving across the globe could be a good idea.

Most of you likely know me and you probably can't easily remember seeing me angry. I like to think I'm a calm and patient person and that I'm rarely angry, but, here, I get legitimately mad almost daily, which is a huge bummer. And it's not just the children, but my boss, too. She has this strange way of telling you something awful with a smile, giving you news that will ruin your day but presenting it as if you're receiving a present or a raise. She's even banned me from reading at work, and I'd explain that but it doesn't make sense to me.

But I'd rather not dwell on the bad.

When I imagined this post so many months ago, I was going to sort of do it like a list, giving little bits of advice for those living abroad, but so much time went by that I thought it might just be more useful to speak of impressions, of what all of this has been to me. And so, I suppose, that's the way this will all be.

Like I said, I spend most of my time by myself. I think that's just part of moving to any new city, but especially when you move to a country whose language you don't speak. The trick is to keep yourself occupied and, with all the freetime, I think it's best to devote it to something productive. Me? I read and write. I teach myself how to cook, how to do things I've never done before, like write lefthanded. I watch films endlessly, bad television religiously.


Mostly, though, I stare at the walls, at the ceiling, at the mountains past my window. Maybe something will come there, give me direction, shine a light and let me know what it is I want from this thing called life, what I want from myself, from the world.

It's my way to obsess, to dive fully into something, never even questioning the consequences or ramifications, and so I've been doing that. Obsessing over Latin American history and politics, over Mideast politics, over the blatant imperialism that is american policy and has been for over a century. It's funny and likely surprising to many who read this, because I've always been apolitical, but something's awakened in me and I can't really explain why. But then there're the usual obsessions, like myths and folktales from across the globe, the plummet into new authors, into new artforms, into understanding and examining what art is and what it means to me.

It matters deeply and is maybe the only reason, the only aspect of life that makes sense to me. The only thing that keeps me going, smiling, living, sane--or something like it.

But, Korea, yes? I've seen a bit of it, from the labyrinthine streets of Seoul, which is some kind of surrealist cityscape, a nightmare of architecture, apartment buildings piled on top of one another, humans circulating and swarming in millions. The glory and shame of Itaewon, the beauty of the old palace. The beaches of Busan and all sorts of places in between that I can't remember: hanging out in mountains, making friends with trees.


If westerners invented noise at the dawn of the industrial age, the east has perfected it in this postindustrial landscape. It's tremendous and dizzying. By noise, too, I don't mean sound. Sound has reason, but noise is just that. Noise. There's no system to it, no rhythm or logic. But the longer you spend inside of it--and, believe me, it's unavoidable--the more comfortable it becomes, the less you miss the silence of the world you once knew. And, even though the rhythm is absent, you begin to write your own and so you wander through, more certain with each step, more alive, almost as if defying the impossible dehumanisation of noise, the weight of so many humans in such proximity who're somehow all strangers. I feel alive as if the only thing that makes me human is my impudence, my defiance to all that should crush me, and so I give myself space, if only by occupying my body, keeping it full of me, combating the isolation, the limits of language and cultural identity.

It's funny, too, being a foreigner here, because, in a way, it's impossible to forget, even when I don't remember that I'm here, in Korea, living life as if I was in Minneapolis or Portland or Dublin or anywhere else I've ever been. As a white male, I stick out, and am stared at constantly. The novelty of my looks is enough for people to assume I'm interesting and people who speak no english approach me to tell me something that I cannot understand. A thousand people say Hello! to me every day, if only because it's the word they know. I stopped going to a store because the girl behind the counter called me handsome guy, and I cannot handle that kind of thing, am hopelessly embarrassed by it, and so I just nod, turn, run.

boatWhich, I suppose, brings me to the strangeness of expatriated love and friendship. The life of an expatriate is defined by transience. Or maybe only mine is because I'm doing it wholly the wrong way. But I believe that's true, the impermanence. Yesterday's friends leave, return to the world they left behind, never to be seen or heard from again. But there's always tomorrow, new people, excited faces. And so friendships are fast, easy, and evanescent. Good or bad aren't the right words, but it makes life peculiar.

I love you, always tomorrow.

I remember you, always yesterday.

I've been lucky enough to make some friends here. Many of them are not the sort of people I ever thought I'd be friends with, but I appreciate them, or try to, maybe not ever showing it properly. But they've been kind to me, and, most days, there's nothing more that can be asked for. Kind enough to put up with me, with my dandyism, my foolishness, my reckless impulsive tendencies, the fact that I do not and have not had a phone, the fact that I'm always lost, always losing them in the crowd, always wondering where I've gotten myself to and how to get back to them. They're good people. Maybe better than could be hoped for, though so different from what I'm used to, from the people that usually make up my life, from the sort of folk I'm typically drawn to.

And then there's love, or something like it. To be completely honest, I've met very few attractive women here, which is, again, maybe because I'm doing it wrong, looking in the wrong places or always the wrong way. But it's surprising to me and not what I'm used to. Then there's my temporal problems, where all of existence is a constantly fleeting present, where I cannot remember anything, not even the mornings, not even the nights. I wake up every morning wondering what I did last night and by night I cannot remember where I was in the morning. Alcohol would be a way of explanation, but I drink rather infrequently here, because why drink by yourself in a place where your friends are so far away, so unreachable? I just cannot remember and so I've become habitually forgetful, which is not the correct tactic to get girls to like you. Forgetting their names, forgetting who they are completely, pretending I remember until I'm worn out by the effort, and so I just disappear, wander on home or off down the street, see what else the night has in store for me, or what I have in store for it. Last night, even, I walked by a girl and she got offended, called my name, asked me how I could pretend not to know her. But I don't. Or I did, but I'm no longer that ydde. He's been washed away by time, capsized by all the future yddes, by all the former yddes.

But, I must admit, I do not try. This transient life, always too short, forever too long, I haven't the capacity, at the moment, to look for love, for even potential lovers. Every day is a new adventure and I'm stranger the further I go. The women I've met have been kind to me, made me feel at home, though I'm unfathomably lost in this neverness. They whisper kind words, touch me tenderly, and make me feel as if it's all okay, that all of this will pass, that my home is everywhere, if only I stopped to lie down.

Also, it's hard to take a potential relationship seriously when I have no way of contacting people unless they friend me on facebook. Most people laugh when I tell them I don't have a phone, I think, because they've already realised that they'll never see me again.

Korean women are typically pretty. Slight and petite, which is, I suppose, the kind of girl I'm attracted to, but there's something that just never feels right. I think it's their docility, their passiveness. They're very kind to me, too. Kinder than I deserve and the novelty of my looks is enough to make them attracted to me, which is, in a way, some sort of forgery I feel I'm getting away with. But I'm a horribly passive person, especially where love is involved. I need to be pulled along, led by the hand, told where and when and all the rest, because I'm perfectly content to simply sit in silence, stare at the walls, and just share space. It's all I want, really. A pretty girl sitting beside me, maybe holding me or me holding her. The rest, I mean, it's quite nice, but it's not necessary for me. But this passivity of mine comes against their docility and we stagnate, an odd tango of stasis, where each partner cannot even begin to figure out what the next step is.


Maybe I just like bossy women. My mother seems to think I do, and mothers tend to know more than they should.

So it goes.

My calendar still says January. In large letters written in black and red, it says, All must die, but first we'll live. I do not remember writing this, but I know I must have. Months ago, weeks ago, or even a few days ago.

Thunderstorming now, and I hope it rains forever. A sentence I've written a thousand times, in every language that I know, and, at times, I believe it.

So Korea has been many things. It's been enjoyable, but, mostly, it's just been my life as usual, with different players and an interesting setting. Maybe there'll be a twist ending, too, and I'll find the love of my life, the woman who can tame and housebreak this wild ydde. But I doubt it.

Read 3347 times

Last modified on Friday, 16 March 2012 15:50
edward j rathke

Getting foppish since '96.

comments powered by Disqus