The State of Fear

“But our Republic of Korea, using just your two legs you can run all over it. You know why? Because our land’s the size of my dick. So it’s said: Korean detectives investigate with their feet. That’s folk wisdom, you bastard.”
—Memories of Murder


Sim Hyun went blind
in his old age. Long hours of study in the darkened cloister of his rooms weakened his eyes, and his teary grief over the death of his wife deprived them of sight altogether. One day, when this scholarly gentleman was out walking, he slipped and fell into a lake. A passing priest heard Sim’s cries for help and dove into the water to save the old man, who thanked him with excessive thanks. The priest said, “I can help you with more than that! I had a vision of you last night, Sim Hyun. What would you say if I could make you see again?” Blind Sim was ecstatic, and even though the priest asked for a donation of three hundred bags of rice to the Buddha of his temple, as payment for the prophesied miracle, an amount far beyond Sim’s means, the old man yearned so much to see that he agreed to pay it and willingly signed a contract. He went home in great spirits.

When his daughter, a good and practical girl named Sim Chung, with rosy cheeks and a silver laugh, found out about her father’s promise, she was exceedingly worried. “How can we find such a sum?” she asked herself, for although her father was a gentleman of minor rank, he had no estates or treasures, and they lived off the most meager of sustenance. In that age, the trading vessels that crossed the Yellow Sea between China and Korea would offer sacrifice to the evil spirit of the sea in exchange for a safe voyage across those dangerous currents. Knowing this, Sim Chung went to a merchant, who immediately saw her beauty and intellect, and said he would not sacrifice so perfect a maiden. Sim Chung told this merchant of her father’s plight and said, “I will offer myself as sacrifice for your journey, if you will pay my father three hundred bags of rice.” The merchant agreed.

Sim Chung delivered the bags of rice to the priest’s temple in the mountains, on one hundred and fifty laden donkeys, and then returned to her home to bid her father farewell. Sim Hyun nearly died from grief when he heard what she had promised. His cries drew all the neighbors, who promised to take care of him in the absence of his daughter, who was his only relation. Sim Chung left him with his tears and went to the merchant’s ship that the winds carried away. Halfway across the Yellow Sea, the waters grew as rough as in a shaken bowl, and the merchant and the sailors wept as Sim Chung threw herself into the sea. A stillness rippled out over the waves from where the maiden had fallen, and the merchant’s ship continued on across a sea as placid as a bath.

The maiden sank down to the very bottom, where the greatest fish feed on forests of seaweed, and the god of the sea saw into her heart: her purity and filial duty, and the greatness of her heart. He made for her a giant flower and, nesting her among the petals, sent her back up atop the waves. The merchant was at this time returning from the shores of China, and as he sailed through the dangerous realm of the evil spirit he caught sight of a mysterious flower, as big as a boat, floating on the waves. He gave orders that it be retrieved and hauled back to Korea as a gift for his king.

The flower was duly brought to the capital and placed before the King and before all his lords and ministers and grandees, who wondered with exceeding wonder. It was then that Sim Chung awoke and emerged from the petals of the flower, to the great terror of all present, though the King calmed them. Sim Chung had been made more lovely by her passage under the sea, and the gleaming clarity of water was in her skin and the light of her purity brightened her eyes. The King fell under the enchantment of passion. As the gathered grandees heard Sim Chung’s story and marveled with exceeding marvel at the realm of the god of the sea, and praised the courage and virtue of the maiden’s deeds and the charm of her words, the King drifted further and further into love. He shortly made Sim Chung his Queen.

Sim Chung lived blissfully in the royal palace, though one thing upset her bliss. Every time she thought of her father she wept and mourned. Sim Hyun had vanished from the village after she left, still blind and all alone. Sim Chung yearned to know if he still lived, and to see him again if he did. She advised the King to make a charitable gesture and call all the blind men to his capital for a great feast, where they would be clothed and fed and gifted with cash for their sustenance. Somewhere in the wilderness, Sim Hyun’s eyes were dry of tears shed for his daughter, but he heard news of the gathering of the blind and supposed that he would go to feed himself after a long abstinence from food and cleanliness. He was the most ragged of the begging blind men to attend the feast, so that Sim Chung did not recognize him, despite all her close observance, and she grew close to despair. The Queen prayed to see her father again, and Sim Hyun heard the voice of the daughter he had lost.

“My child! Do the dead rise again? I hear your voice, I feel your touch, but can it really be you? I cannot see, for my eyes have failed me. Away with blindness!”

Sim Hyun clawed at his eyes with his nails and tore away the scaly cataracts that had blinded him. He rejoiced, for his sight was suddenly restored, as the priest of Buddha had promised, and the first thing he saw was the joyful face of his lost daughter, Sim Chung.

Seoul-1


Today the South Koreans live in a state of blind fear of the unknown nation on their border. North Korea is a black spot on the map. At night, no lights burn there, seen like diamonds from space. The country appears impoverished, but that could only mean that all the wealth of a lively trade with China is funneled into a military of unknown strength and a nuclear program of an unknown sophistication. Regular incidents serve to remind the South Koreans of the constant threat—the arrest of fishermen, the sinking of their vessels, the mock skirmishes of the American fleet, the warnings of China, the mad harangues of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-Il, and the recent uncovering of four tunnels reaching under the DMZ on the thirty-eighth parallel, with North Korean deserters claiming that there are seven more tunnels yet undiscovered—and to establish in the Republic of Korea a national neurosis and an apocalyptic revelry, an Epicurean philosophy familiar to any veteran of the Cold War: the world will end tomorrow, so today we drink wine!

I met a diplomat of the Republic on the ferry from Tianjin to Incheon, across those straits of the Yellow Sea where heathen merchants once sacrificed maidens to appease the evil spirits, and he told me the story of Sim Chung and asked me what I thought of China. We spoke of politics. Many in South Korea would be happy to reunite with the north, to invest in new commerce in those untouched lands, and many in the north would rejoice to free themselves from the shackles of the incumbent dictatorship and its self-serving poverty. The resulting nation would be one of the most powerful in the world.

“China will never have an American ally on its border,” said the diplomat. It was for this reason that China supported the north during the civil war: to create a wily buffer state between Manchuria and the American protectorates of South Korea and Japan, a leashed dog to scare away any intruders. He added that Korea feared the rising might of China, which when strong has always invaded the peninsula. I told him that I never sensed any aggression during two months traveling the country, but that is a naïve excuse: who could sense hostility against Iraq amongst my own people before the lightning conception of that war in the rhetoric of the President? National sentiment is as unpredictable as every citizen, but history can offer vague prophesy on a nation’s inevitable motion.

The diplomat, whose name I could imitate but never spell, the Korean syllables being entirely foreign to my ears, ended our conversation and asked me to have dinner with him and his wife. We ate in a karaoke room on the first level of the ship: bibimbap, a dish of rice topped with egg, vegetables, and chili sauce and served in a clay pot, which was the only thing Michael Jackson ordered when he visited Korea, and budae jjigae, a thick Korean soup that literally translates to “army base stew.”

“Do you know about this?” asked the diplomat. “It comes from after the Korean War. There was not much food in Korea then, because of the fighting, and many people had only a little rice. The American soldiers had a lot of food in their bases, and Korean people made this soup from the American leftovers.”

Hot dogs, canned ham, and a few vegetables in a broth flavored by gochujang chili paste and kimchi. I marveled that it was still popular today.

The diplomat’s wife spoke no English and asked her husband to translate questions for me. She was a polite, soft woman, with a lovely maturity that bore out even in her tourist garb, who insisted on pouring my beer for me, and who sipped the hard Chinese baijiu that her husband insisted on distributing. It was the finest baijiu in China, he said, and certainly tasted better than the homemade brands to which I had been accustomed. He was a lean and keen Korean who wore the gray utility vest that is the uniform of Korean men abroad.

When the food and beer was gone, we said goodnight and I went back to my berth. When I awoke the boat was climbing the boat lift to enter the harbor of Incheon, just an hour by train from the web of subway tunnels under the capital.

Seoul is a grand and prosperous metropolis of ten million, with twenty-two million living in the greater sprawl. It is the densest city outside of India, twice as packed as New York. The apartment towers all bear the name of the Lotte conglomerate, in a rather Orwellian fashion, and on the ground floor the crowds and lights of bars, restaurants, and stores spill into the neon lined street. The eateries are always full, so that the convenience stores also have tables and chairs in front that serve as overflow cafés. Young Koreans gather in the few packed parks to drink cheap soju rice whiskey from the Family Mart across the street and down it like water. Some drunkards topple over into sleep on the concrete, and their friends try to rattle them awake to take them home. The soberer play the guitar, sing American pop hits, and stage freestyle and rap battles at all hours of the night.

This is where I spent my first night in South Korea: in a park the size of a tennis court, scattered with circles of students in the glad season of life. Hongik University was just around the corner, and they called this neighborhood of bars, restaurants, cafés, and boutiques Hongdae. I sat with some travelers I had met in the hostel: Chris of Minneapolis, blowing through cash on a three week holiday, a sarcastic and talkative South Englander named Matt, Wayne of England and his German-Filipina fiancé, Stephanie, who is trying to see fifty countries before she turns twenty-five. They met on a site for arranging travel companions. There was a Swiss traveler, and a well-dressed American who was teaching to support an attempt at a publishing business, and an English girl, Marilyn of Hereford, who came there on a whim and stayed to teach. Gathered around were a few Koreans known by the teachers, one wailing on a guitar. The spotlights and lanterns reflected off the low bower of a glade of trees, set in concrete planters that made fine benches, and I looked around me in that artificial light at the lithe and copper-skinned locals of this new country: boys in vests and sports coats, girls in loose shirts that were very attractive, everyone in tight slacks, some of them wearing instruments on their backs in cases of black canvas, and most with carefully sorted shoes and accessories.

Seoul is a city of fashions and iconoclastic trends. Its denizens can be vain and even narcissistic, for if a mirror is available, in an elevator’s door or in the dark window of a subway car, at least one will preen his or her hair and spend the latter part of the journey in careful self-appraisal. I watched the greatest of the fashionistas criticize the lesser ranks with a disdainful scan, as supercilious a look as a grand duke ever offered a lesser lord in the courts of kings. Among such nobility, en grande tenue, I was as absurd as a sailor and just as motley. My own style, were it to appear in some modern catalog, might be headed “Cheap Chinese” or “Bargain Bin,” or perhaps “Ragged Traveler.” (In Latin America this fashion is so popular among vagabonds such as I that they call usgringos cucinos, or “dirty gringos.”) I could at least match the colors of my limited wardrobe, but quality was noticeably lacking, as were shoes.

O sandals, red rubber and a worn thong, two dollars from a market in Burma—my toes find their indentations in thy cheap red rubber, the worn thong fits over the untanned part of my foot, and thy checkered soles are worn smooth, red and black as scar tissue. For 7500 miles we have tread together, up mountains and walls, across jungles and plains and the greatest rivers of Asia, and there are a thousand miles left to span the map to Edo!

Fortunately, foreigners can get away with a lot in East Asia that would be unforgivable in a local, and despite my threadbare, thrifty appearance, and my insouciance regarding most matters of style beyond basic grooming, I was generally treated with respect and occasionally viewed with a more significant interest—and those occasions were enough to succor the coal of my self-respect.

A Korean girl sat next to me, part of another circle that began to join with ours like a venn diagram, that put me at the intersection, as she looked over curiously and finally asked, “Where are you from?”

We talked for a while, and Chris of Minneapolis leaned his bulk in and said, “Tell her she’s pretty.”

“You’re very pretty.”

“Oh, thank you!”

The girl blushed and all her male friends bristled, and another girl strutted over on her long legs to see what was going on. We talked in the simplest sentences, and Chris started to say, “Legs, look at these legs,” gesturing at those limbs and looking to me and the other girl for validation. The Minnesotan sallied off to buy them beer, and I considered whether or not I envied the liberty of his spirit, his word, and his wallet.

We went down an alley into a noisy, grungy bar and played Fuck the Dealer, where a Texan named Chris “Thunderhawk” always seemed to lose. He was on his way west, and I drew a map of India and told him the best places to visit. Together we tried to teach Marilyn to speak her native language with the drawl and growl of the American south.

The park had been full of Koreans in tight jeans playing guitars, and when we returned to the park there were Koreans in baggy pants having a rap battle. The words when translated were reportedly very lame, but I was lucky not to notice. My friends slowly flitted away to sleep, until I was talking with an Englishman from East London, with a derby hat and a Cockney accent, who had followed his girlfriend to Korea after high school and had been there a year teaching his brand of English. I joked with him about some guy across the park, who wore a French flag across his shoulders as a cape, but the Cockney said that it was his brother! He called the Frenchman over, who said:

“Yes, I wear the flag. I wear it so everyone knows I am from France. If they want to talk to someone from France, they can come to me.”

The English half of these stereotypical siblings said, “Our granddad flew this flag in, uhm, Algeria.”

I found this unbelievable, as they barely had a common resemblance, but they spoke rapid French and the Cockney helped to translate so his brother could tell me about a book he was having published.

“Well what’s it about?”

“It’s all bullshit,” said the man from France, sitting on the concrete wall and wrapped in the colors of the Republic,—“tons of bullshit that people want to read. Of course I will write more! I can always write more bullshit.”

I wandered off after this strange encounter and got lost in the daylight, amid the early Sunday risers, but ran into Marilyn of Hereford. We had pork cutlets for breakfast, and she sent me on the right way back to the hostel.

Seoul-6


Before coming to Korea, all I had heard of the country, from travelers and from foreigners who had worked there, was of its tediousness, its lack of interest, its yawning boredom. But all I saw in the lively cities of Seoul and Busan were things worth doing.

The following night I had dinner with Matt the Englishman at a place around the corner, where the grill was set in the table, and then we took the subway toward the Hangang River Park for the International Fireworks Festival that happened to be that night. The fireworks flashed like lightning in the glass canyon of the city as we walked there from the station.

Quoth Matt: “Well, it’s right on time. These Koreans are sharp. If this were England, they’d say half seven, and the show would start ’round nine.” He was a young man with a young and shaggy beard and that self-deprecating sense of humor for which the English are renowned. His job on the Isle had been with the police in his small town, before starting this trip through Asia, and I think he was anxious to get to the beaches further south, where he could wear with greater ease the “mankini” that was a gift from his friends.

Korean and foreign fireworks teams competed in the sky, with gunpowder and lasers, for the horde of skygazers the covered every inch of the riverbanks and lined all the bridges in ranks. The series of displays ended in an eruption of so many golden fireworks that the sky came to resemble a thousand gilt spiderwebs, layered one over the other. It took a long time for us to get back to Hongdae.

I nosed through the hostel’s Lonely Planet and found that there was a festival in nearby Suwon in October—the Hwaseong Cultural Festival, a celebration of the old royal court of the Joseon dynasty—and looking online found that it ended the following day with the Big Festival of the Pleasant People. I took a train there and found Hwaseong Palace without much trouble. It was on the southern end of the huge fortress city, mostly overgrown with modern construction. The palace structures and courtyards had been rebuilt.

A crowd was gathered in front of the high gate and around a rope rider, who walked a line strung between two high tripods. He wore loose clothing, all in white, and had a bundled white hat and a white fan, and he stepped lightly across the rope, then began to ride across it, bouncing off his groin, spinning and twisting and kicking his legs in the air. When the crowd had cleared some royal guards marched out the gate in their hunnish costumes, with bows and swords and spired helms and tasseled banners, to the beat of the great drum and the forbidding concert of the martial band. The musicians wore wide-brimmed yellow hats in the Joseon style. Some electric guitar Korean pop kicked up as they culminated their maneuvers, along with the listed names of the sponsors, and then some done-up lord and lady swaggered out to shake hands with the masses.

I got sick of this and took a turn about the wall, up the Suwoncheon Stream to the Baksumun, or “North Floodgate,” and on around the earthworks and stone walls, across the square chiseong and wooden puru. I returned in time to wander past the puppet shows, the writing contest, and the reenactment of the sixtieth birthday banquet of Princess Hong of Hyegyeonggung.

The lords and grandees in royal red, yellow, and black, introduced each other and danced with slow and vapid gestures, with a troupe of Korean dancers in the formal hanbok. The music had started at the grand finale, but after a few drum circles it was mostly American-style jazz. I left to have a haemool bokkeum woodong (spicy seafood noodles) in the warren of the market and then headed back to Seoul.

The port of Busan, or Pusan, on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, is the second largest city in South Korea, and could not be further removed from the first: the capital, near the northwestern border. Yet the slow train from Seoul to Busan took only six hours. For a country of fifty million South Korea is rather small, mostly mountainous, and centered on Seoul, where nearly half the population resides. I went with Matt the Englishman, and we were both starving when we arrived, having had only a meager snack in the train station before our departure. We found the Actors and Tourists Guesthouse, on the roof of a building in Namcheon, which is right between the cheap district around the university and the expensive commercial district near the Haeundae Beach, and I interrupted Mr. Lee’s introduction of his house and city to ask about food.

I had lucked out again in coming to Busan, for the Pusan International Film Festival, or PIFF, had just begun a few days before, and a Korean girl named Su Yeung who was on her way back to Seoul the next day gave me her program. The films were divided among four venues, two of them in the world’s largest department store, Shinsegae Centum City. Most of the Korean and Japanese films were already sold out, but there was a focus on Kurdish and Balkan films that I found interesting: two lands divided and mostly ignored by the world. I saw three movies the next day. The first I chose for starring Willem Dafoe: A Woman, an artsy film directed by his young Italian wife, apparently not courted for her directorial talent. The lead actress tried too hard to behave crazy and later vanished into the sea of her gender.

Then I went to see Children of Diyarbakir, a powerful Kurdish picture from Turkey, of how a generation oppressed can turn to violence. The director spoke after, and I asked the first question once the translator had finished turning his words to Korean. Enjoying this film so much I bought tickets for another: Son of Babylon, about a Kurdish boy and his grandmother searching for a father, lost under Saddam’s dictatorship and possibly still alive and free, now that the Americans had come, or buried in some mass grave in the desert. Between one and four million people are missing in Iraq. The director, an Iraqi, said that his country had been occupied thirty-five times, but that Babylon remained.

I saw a horrible film with Jean Reno the next day, then a Bosnian one, On the Path, about a young couple torn apart when the husband finds the austere piety of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect. It was very well done and nearly outsold Avatar in Bosnia when it was releases—an impressive feat.

Matt was not interested in any of this. He went one day to a Korean spa, where he was the only foreigner. All the old Korean men stared at the Brit at first, then acted casually around him. They did their stretches and squatted into the hot, healing water of the bath. Matt thought it was horrible, because in Korea you visit the baths without any covering but skin and hair—”starky,” in the British vernacular. “It was horrible.” He went with me the next day to see a low-budget, Qur’an-approved Iranian film, First Stone, which was perhaps not the movie I would have chosen to show to someone uninterested in the art, but Matt walked out thoughtfully and said, “I rather liked that one.”

He was on the computer all that night to look into a Vietnam visa, and he slowly realized that it would be very difficult to get such a thing and might involve hanging out in Shanghai for a week. “But it says here, if I go through this Web site I can get the visa at the border.” I said, “You should go to the consulate,” and the Berliner actor who was sitting there agreed with me very solemnly in his Thespian accent. “I’m getting sick of this travel malarkey!” cried the Englishman, with many months and miles to go before home.

Meanwhile, I had just one more place to visit: the last miles, the last month. I would take a ferry the next day to Fukuoka in Japan, an expensive but safe country where travelers commonly camped in city parks, which was entirely legal. So I emptied all the detritus that had accumulated in my bag, some of it to mail home and the rest to toss, and I made room in my haversack for the blanket I would need. I supposed I was used to these sorts of difficulties.

I had eaten lunch the previous day at the mall food court with an unemployed Korean who told me that I would have a fine time if I decided to come work in Seoul, as a handsome foreigner, and who said that Korean girls are superior to the American ones he saw when working in Salem, Oregon, just thirty miles from my home. I had been looking for a nice city in China to return to and teach English. Hangzhou and Kunming were nice, and of course Qufu had its friendly attraction, but I liked the energy and style in Seoul. It is perhaps strange that, before I had even returned home, I was already planning another, more permanent trip. Seeing the world, rather than touring it, creates an awareness of the opportunities abroad, the ways to work, the ways to live, which for an English-speaker or a businessman with capital can outshine anything available at home.

Suwon-28

Comments

  1. Also consider Hong Kong for teaching - I had pretty much set myself on Seoul but now am having a hard time deciding. Supposedly the pay for teaching in Hong Kong is absurd, which makes it pretty much ideal for me - I was drawn to the wild west-ness of China, but teaching lacked the pay (you start to get the mainland China feel as soon as you get out of the central area). However, drinking is much cheaper in Seoul, and I find the Koreans generally more affable and fun to be around.

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  2. Hong Kong is a nice place, and there is good food there. It seemed very commercial when I visited, but I think Seoul was the same: only I came to Hong Kong from rural China, and to Seoul from Beijing. There is too much opportunity in East Asia.

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  3. He had nails that were so long his toes had to bend to walk on them, infected eyes, tics and fleas, and scars and he was very quiet.

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  4. After 2 years at home, I went back to work, fortunately for Aim†s company and worked there for 8 great years.

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