Some light gardening.
My companions had ridden off into the sunset, the sunset in this case being Cambodia. My passport was completely full, and I felt certain that I was nowhere near charming or rich enough to convince a Cambodian border guard to let me through with a wink and a wad of cash, so I was left to my own devices in Vietnam. I had already been to the south, and so I set off into the distant wilds (approximately two hours on a bus) to Huế.
Taxi drivers swarmed the outside of the bus like angry hornets. They spotted tourists on board and a frenzy began, chum spreading out across their waters. Some began scrambling for the baggage, removing trunks and backpacks and standing nearby, as though hoping the meagre effort would be rewarded with fawning thanks and the acceptance of an overpriced fare. It felt like a pretty poorly put-together dowry for such an interaction, but the sheer number of taxis and rickshaws wedged onto the sidewalk made it difficult to spent too much time scoffing.
If contestants were chosen for t-shirt cleverness, we would have been shoe-ins.
I present to you, gentle readers, a timeline exploring how my life in between teaching jobs has become kind of a cartoon without me noticing.
10:24 a.m. I arrive at the Sony Centre with my cousin Zack, and meet several friends already in line. We have tickets to the Price is Right, and have heard that you have to show up disturbingly early in order to secure your position in the draw to be a contestant. We are in line between two elderly people in wheelchairs, and four young people conversing suspiciously in Czech.
10:43 a.m. It is fairly cold outside, and we send off members of the group for the first of several coffee runs of the day. Hannan was brought several camping chairs and we begin huddling together with them.
11:02 a.m. We have discussed it in line, but several people were not previously aware that this is The Price is Right Live. Drew Carrey is not present, nor are any of the remaining Barker’s Beauties, and no matter how memorable we act when we are called down for contestantship, we will never be immortalized in daytime television history. Deep disappointment washes through the line-up, which has ballooned to 17 people.
“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.
100 Yen draft beer! (Not a super great deal, but I have no good pictures of prices in won)
The cab was making good time downtown to be fair, but I was just about having an anxiety attack in the back seat. I was with my cousins, it was Christmas day, we all had drunk about a half bottle of red wine a person, and were further inebriated by holiday spirit, tryptophan, and piles of gifts. We were off to see a movie together, I was with family, and I should have been relaxed and joyous. I should have been marveling at the soft, doughy comforts of home. Instead I was tense, angsty, and ready to leap from the moving vehicle at any time.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the taxi meter. Didn’t anyone else recognize how absurdly expensive everything was?
Say goodbye to the blossoms and the spring.
The going away party was a hit–everyone was smiling and happy, and it felt, in so many ways, like a coming together and not a splitting apart. The music was loud, and people were overly generous in sloughing free drinks down our gullets. We wrote dozens of post-its and stuck them on people, first messages of friendship and connection, and then later insults and invective once we’d had enough drink. The night was hitchless, but for a surprise dance-off that included the Spice Girls, which just so happened to be Faith’s Trigger, and thus turned the dance-floor into an anger pit. It was the exact kind of mess we secretly had wanted.
It was perfect. All of my friends and loved ones in Korea gathered in one place to send me off – laughing and singing and being fools, the wonderful lot of them. I loved them. So why was I then leaving?
The hour was late, and our drinks were dwindling down to single remaining sips. Some of my friends had already gone home, each punctuating their exit with an embrace, a wish of good luck, a lingering handshake. Thanh and I stood near the piano and continued berating the pianist to play “Leaving on a Jetplane,” because that’s what we were doing the next day, and we were several beers deep, and just play the damn song.
The familiar strains eventually hit us, and my friends joined in to sing the words as they said their last goodbyes. It was dark outside, but warm and safe within, as I was surrounded by friends, by relatives, by colleagues. Each expressed their love, their concern, their hope. It seemed absurd, in that moment, that I could want to abandon that feeling. That I had already packed my bags, and was preparing to leave all of this.
All of this was the only this that I had known.
Can’t I just say that I’m from Earth? That’d simple it up some.
The immigration officer was getting more and more agitated. “Why didn’t you list the flight you left Canada on?” he growled. A vein bulged in his toady forehead, and I tried to will it to burst through telekinesis. I was coming back for a funeral and had been on a plane for 13 hours, my butt ached, and was not really capable of overwhelming him with charm and pleasantness.
“Because I don’t remember. It was about 7 months ago.”
“Well, what have you been doing for 7 months?!” he asked testily. He seemed to be implying that I must have been running drugs or had packed several Korean orphans into the depths of my suitcase. I told him that I had been living in Korea, and he practically screamed to the heavens, castigating me as to why I had dared to write my Canadian address instead of my Korean one. Was I dumb? Did I not understand my own country’s notions of home and which one to write down on immigration form 38-C?!
Kindergarten: tiny adults in training.
It was a local news story about Halloween safety. Stock footage of adorable tykes marching up and down halls played: Spidermen and fairy princesses and home-made crafty monstrosities constructed by invested parents. Soon we rushed to a classroom where concerned grade ones looked into the camera and handed down safety advice to their peers so that they could enjoy their Halloweens in comfort and without fear. You never know which piece of candy is filled with razorblades and spider eggs, their shining eyes seemed to say.
Suddenly the camera cut to Charlie. Charlie was a kindergartener I had taught two years before – a Chinese immigrant who spoke only Mandarin at home. A respectful tot in the midst of a silent phase, he showed his appreciation for our snack choices, enjoyed Wednesday afternoon baking projects, and loved the water table. He looked into the camera, wizened almost, as though passing down knowledge from generations past, unearthed from ancient tomes in tongues only he could read. “Always make sure your parents check your candy.” He gave a serene, concerned nod. Don’t fear. Charlie knows what you need to do. Charlie has lived some life. He’s been in the shit.
Photo is actually to scale.
The moment I enter another friend’s apartment in Korea is usually a time of burning, roiling jealousy. The apartments my friends live in seem cavernous, nearly monstrous–hulking, beyond-spacious grand cathedrals. I look around at the enormous amount of free space, the storage, the kitchen counters, the presence of more than one room, and I think you could fit a whole family in there. An extended one, with lots of live-in uncles and aunts and in-laws and third cousins. Some of their friends and well-wishers, too. Maybe a few transients. And then I think of my apartment and I begin to plot this friend’s destruction.
Enjoy your battery acid, grown-up.
I remember the very first time I tried a sip of beer: it was cold, out of the bottle, my father’s brand. I was young, and as with most young boys had a vague idolization of everything my father did as the epitome of adulthood. Beer, I thought, was certainly a part of adulthood, and I was a big boy. I deserved to drink the big boy drinks. After enough pestering, and with a knowing eyeroll, my father offered me a sip.
I may have spat it on the ground. Beer sucked.
Korean hobby time.
It was like seeing a real-world person stepping suddenly into a prolonged and barely lucid dream. A black and white character bursting through into a Technicolor television landscape, a visitor from a distant planet where all of the fashion is distinctly alien, where the language is barely even language. Greeting a member of my family at the airport in Korea, seeing an electric spectre of home life suddenly alive and befleshed in my long, bizarre sojourn was bewildering. Two worlds meeting, despite them seeming untenable, and just too far to bring together.