Before moving to Korea in the spring of 2002, I had Graham Greene on the brain - imagining myself passing the summer monsoons beneath lazy ceiling fans on the screened porch of some crumbling colonial villa; sipping gin-tonics while watching the rickshaws pass below on the flooded streets of Seoul; a small-scale civil war raging in the countryside.
Would that it were, and it never was.
I ended up not in an old-world mansion but in a one room flat in Bundang - a bedroom suburb of Seoul - directly above a shop that made and sold traditional Korean rice cakes. Every morning at 0600 sharp, the proprietor would fire up the machine that pulverized steamed rice into a gummy, gooey resin that was then made into the rice cakes. The first time this machine woke me up - on my first morning in Korea - I was sure that some hellion was assaulting my metal door with a sledgehammer, trying to force his way in and burgle me blind. I looked around for a method of self-defense, grabbing a bottle of shampoo, and thought, "no, I wanted the war in the countryside."
With the exception of holidays and Sundays, I never slept past 6 AM again until ten months later, when I finally moved to a new apartment in a strictly residential building. It wasn't all bad, though. I had to teach early morning classes in those days - as in 6:30 AM early - and so I was usually out of bed and on my way out the door by the time my trusty Rice Man set about his morning poundings. If nothing else, he saved me the trouble of setting an alarm clock, which actually added an extra twenty-two seconds of free time to my days.
Saturdays, however, were another matter: I really would have preferred to sleep late - until 6:15, say - but my cakemaker downstairs worked on Saturdays and if he was up, so was I. As a favor, I once asked him to delay his morning routine a bit, but the response I got was, shall we say, less than neighborly. Unless, that is, you happen to live next to Dick Cheney.
I began to feel like I too was in the rice cake racket. Resigned to the sleeping hours of a geriatric, I took to going to bed earlier to ensure that I'd get enough sleep. Out with friends at a bar on a Friday night, I always tried to slip away by 9:45.
"You'll have to pardon me," I'd say. "We have to be up early tomorrow. Another day of rice caking awaits."
It was all a far cry from Graham Greene.
In his collection of essays, Sunrise with Seamonsters, Paul Theroux observes in reference to Greene's 1935 trek through Liberia that Greene "clearly liked the idea of utter awfulness," thriving on seediness and hardship and deprivation. I did, too, and still do when I get the chance, which isn't often here in the ROK. Idealizing my life in Korea, I imagined a world that, even at the best or worst of times, never existed. The Japanese didn't build in Korea the grand homes or buildings that the British brought to India or that the French left in Indochina, and while getting a gin-tonic in Seoul has never been easier, it's still damn near impossible to find a lime. All of which is irksome, yes, but hardly anything that would've thrilled our man Graham.
It's not that I wanted to be raped, pillaged or burned, but as Greene himself said, "seediness has a very deep appeal...It seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back." Pardon me, then, for expecting more from Seoul than Itaewon's Hooker Hill, and I have no doubt that more than one westerner has been much dismayed at the shortfall of magic mushrooms at the Gyeongdong medicinal market, as promised in an old edition of Lonely Planet.
To my great chagrin - and rice cake shops notwithstanding - Korea offered no great hardship. There were no marauding cannibals, malarial jungles, or - excepting the shady employers - predators lurking in the undergrowth. True, there was the distant threat of tuberculosis but I would have preferred crocodiles. A person - namely, me - can't call up his family back home and announce proudly, "I almost got TB last week." On the other hand, who doesn't perk up and pay attention when, at a cocktail party, you mention that while living in Korea you had to be always on-guard against crocs as you walked to work everyday? Name me one person who wouldn't listen to that story.
Some - again, me - complain that life in Korea is hard, littered with all manner of stones in the pathway to happiness. Au contraire, monsieur. If anything, it isn't hard enough. Within my first week here, I wondered why I'd flown twelve hours around the world just to live a suburbanite's life that I could have had 30 minutes away in Beaverton, Oregon. Perhaps there's just something to be said for living the tract-home life on a temporary visa.
"All immigrants are colonists," Theroux points out in a different essay in the same book, "in the sense that they carry something of their national culture with them: ideas of comfort, religion, business, and appetite are part of their language, you might say."
I didn't come over here looking for the comfort I had back in Metropolitan, USA. Fortunate for me, then, that I - as mentioned before - live in Guro. I like that this area hasn't gentrified or gone upmarket, that it remains as a last bestial outpost of Korea Raw. For the same reasons, however, the residents in these parts tend to be a pack of rustic boors. Savages, actually.
I'm even worried that a civil war is in the offing.