In 1892, his honeymoon having been aborted by a Japanese bank failure, the British writer Rudyard Kipling left Yokohama and headed back to the New World, where he settled in Brattleboro, Vermont. As Paul Theroux tells it, Kipling "loved the American landscape; he was uncertain of the people. He hated the drinking, the talking, the spitting, the greed, the noise, the illiterate immigrants, the xenophobia - specifically a hurtful anti-British feeling which prevailed in the 1890s." Americans, thought Kipling, seemed to think that he was merely leeching money out of the country without sufficient gratitude for his position.2
Eventually, of course, Kipling had all he could take of the ill-mannered Americans and decided to take his brood and go home to England, where he and his family settled in Torquay on the coast of Devon. He didn't like it much there either, however, blaming what he claimed was the lousy feng shui of his house for all that ailed him.
Wherever Kipling went, there he was. As far as I can tell, though, nothing and no one told Kipling where to go or forced him to live in houses with bad feng shui. He just liked to gripe, bitch and moan. But then, as Theroux points out in a separate essay, a "man of the world, almost by definition, is never content anywhere."3
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A few days ago, I left our apartment and, as I do on most mornings, headed to the office. As I neared the subway station I spotted, on the side of the road between two cars, a turd. Now, I'm no expert tracker but even I could tell that this particular dollop was human in origin, and I had to wonder why anyone would be squatting between a pair of parked Kias on a frigid winter night, dropping a deuce in our neighborhood. It seemed a tad uncouth to me, but then I remembered - as though I could have forgotten - that I live in the Guro district of Seoul.
On the best of days, Korea is a nuisance - perhaps no greater a nuisance than many other countries, but certainly not much less of one either. If you don't happen upon any open-air night soil, you'll still have to do a quick jig to sidestep the vomit on the sidewalk or to dodge a lugee horked by some churlish yokel in the subway station.
Any foreigner who has lived in Korea for a few years probably has - or should have - a healthy batch of mixed feelings toward the country. Each year of life passed as a foreigner in Korea adds equally to one's loyalty to the country as well as to a sense of utter disgust with the place. Ideally, a person can maintain a healthy balance between the two competing emotions, but the temptation to slip over into the dark side and just write Korea off as a hopeless backwater, filled with small-minded clodhoppers, is not an easy one to resist on the worst of days.
What the stranger in this strange land, the interloper, must resist at all costs, is the urge to feel superior to the people of his host nation. He must repel that creeping notion that whispers - when, yet again, crudeness trumps decorum - "these bumpkins couldn't carry my balls in a paper sack." This, however, is no easy task when some uncultured rube has just taken a shit on a street in your neighborhood.
And am I allowed to say that, like Kipling in 19th century America, my soft spot for Korea has been slowly but steadily eroded by the drinking, the spitting, the noise, the xenophobia? Can I say, without sounding cavalier, that the tiresome parts of Korea have slowly begun to outweigh any greater sum it might have once held in my mind? Eventually, like Kipling, I'd best pack up my satchel and make an escape of my own. To this end, I remind myself daily that I am an expatriate on contract, not an exile, but that the longer I stay here, the higher the risk that I will slip from the former into the latter.
I can only hope that I have not become, to the detriment of my own contentment, Theroux's "man of the world."
1 Illustration from The Atlantic
2 Paul Theroux, Sunrise with Seamonsters. "Rudyard Kipling: White Man's Burden."
3 ibid, but from "The Last Laugh," an essay on humorist S.J. Perelman