What Am I Doing Here?

Seoul has gotten clammy, raw, and cold all of a sudden, the kind of visceral weather that grips you by the bones and doesn’t let go, no matter how many layers of clothes you put on.  It quietly murders you from within, just like life itself.

Yesterday I rose before my wife Jina and ate a small bowl of kimchi and brown rice, just enough to enable me to brush my teeth without getting a stomach ache.  Then I woke her up, shaved, and took a shower.  I couldn’t find my Rick Santorum-approved sweater-vest (or swest), and after much growling and gumbling, sprinkling the air with invective, I dug out another one from my wardrobe (not to be confused with a “peace-drobe,” considering how much grief I endured from Jina while we were re-assembling it two years ago; she lambasted me with incessant jeering mockery for what she perceived as my inferior carpentry skills; as a relative of Jesus, she knows what of she speaks).

A week ago while I was teaching my private student, I got a bad case of the sniffles and had to blow my nose several times (a patently uncool gesture in Korean society; I guess you’re just supposed to sit there and drown in your own snot).  I apologized to the student, figuring I was suffering an allergic reaction to dust from a T-shirt that had been entombed in the wardrobe for too long.  When I got home I found that the too-thin socks I was wearing were the culprit.

Anyway, as soon as Jina was ready, I put on my shoes with the holes in them, since they’re the only pair I have that are waterproof and it was raining Poseidon piss.  Funnily enough, by the time we got outside the rain had stopped.  I guess Jina must have been praying; she’s got connections to the angels in charge of making the weather in heaven’s bureaucracy.

Since her legs are shorter than mine, I walked ahead of her up the hill, past the girls’ high school, my breath ebbing as I went, heart already getting ready to check out from work.  When I started sneezing, I heard her sigh and mutter something contemptuous in Korean behind me, reading the lines written in her genes.

That helped me pick up the pace a bit, and as I rounded the hill I started combining the sneeze with a yell that bordered on a primal scream.  I didn’t want to wake up the hungover multitudes in the neighborhood out of disgruntled atheistic resentment, considering they weren’t married to religious fanatics who force them to go to church every Sunday instead of letting them sleep in and meet God in their dreams where s/he belongs.

Instead, I was just pissed off that she’d already ruined the rest of my weekend, first by dragging me into a protracted argument about how I didn’t love her on Friday night, which resulted in her refusing to come back home with me and calling fifteen minutes later to say she was moving out the following morning (needless to say, she didn’t); second, by making me join her on a shopping expedition for skin-care products on a crowded Saturday night downtown, when all I wanted to do was stay home and read my book since she won’t let me go out and drink anymore and besides most of my foreign friends have left the country and the few who remain don’t drink anymore anyway.  This is progress?

We took a cab to the church.  She’d told me the place would be “busy” today so we could come home early (at first I thought she meant that she’d be busy, so I could come home and chill by myself or else sneak in a beer somewhere); she didn’t say why it would be busy and is too vague a communicator to bother asking for clarification from.  On top of that, too many “what’s” from me only serve to make her mad (suffice it to say she’s mad enough already without my help).

Luckily, we weren’t able to sit together because the God-box was jam-packed.  I grabbed a seat at the back under a light so bright it might as well have been an interrogation lamp used to train Latin American dictators on holiday how to torture political prisoners at the School of the Americas (the place has since changed its name to something even more euphemistic).  Jina, meanwhile, went upstairs to sit on the floor and be a few meters closer to God. 

While I’d been coming up the church steps, ahead of Jina again, a nice woman with big fake teeth wearing magnifying glasses handed me a program.  I grunted by way of thanks and ditched the thing under my seat as soon as I sat down.  I tried meditating, even though I was distracted by the beauty of the young woman sitting next to me, but was too annoyed by the ritual of self-pity to smile at her and act human.

A guy got up in front of the congregation and began singing his Jesus-autographed heart out so loudly I had to plug my ears with my fingers.  He didn’t need a microphone but used it nonetheless, just in case anyone there was too hard of hearing to get the message.

My tinnitus had been acting up again already; on Friday I let one of my seven-year-old students, Rocky, put a toilet paper tube against my ear while I was sitting at the table with the other children.  I thought he was just going to use it as a telescope, but then he surprised me by shouting into it.

Resisting the urge to break his neck, I instead marveled aloud at his stupidity (neglecting to observe for the moment my own in trusting him not to do such a psychotic thing).  Mind, this is the same boy who once sneaked up on me in the teachers’ room while I was preparing to make photocopies and yelled at the top of his lungs, nearly giving me a heart attack.

The next clown to arise in front of the seated woolen herd sounded like an old woman; when I put my glasses back on, I realized it was an old man.  His high-pitched quavering voice started to get on my nerves, especially because his self-righteous conviction that he had the least idea what he was talking about led him to forget how to shut up.  His idiotic incantation reminded me of one of the three bearded witches known as the Weird Sisters in Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble. . .”).

Finally I got up, snatched my umbrella, and left.  When the same woman who’d handed me the program asked where I was going, I said, “For a walk.”  When she wouldn’t accept that as an answer and kept following me, dressed in her hanbok (a colorfully traditional Korean robe), I decided to come clean with her:

“I can’t understand the service.  It’s incredibly boring.  And I don’t believe in God.”

She put a friendly hand on my shoulder and let me go.  

An hour later I returned and joined the congregation for a delectable feast, having removed my devil’s horns in favor of a hollow fluorescent halo.  I’d been concerned that the woman I’d confessed my apostasy to might have blabbed about it to Jina, but my wife was all smiles after having been loved up by J. C. for ninety minutes.

I led a group of old folks in a dictation of a text written by some crackpot minister (another obligation I got roped into by Jina a few months ago, even though she no longer joins the group because Professor Lee, the stentorian master of ceremonies, treats her like a used Kleenex).  

“The word ‘protestant’ should be capitalized,” I said after reading and having them repeat a fresh paragraph.  In many circles Protestantism and capitalism are one and the same.

Half an hour or so later I went and found Jina washing dishes in the church cafeteria; she had me wait for her downstairs in the children’s library, where I pretended to study Korean for a few minutes and made small talk with small people.

Back home, Jina wouldn’t let me lie down and take a nap because she’s worried about my weight, even though I was absolutely shattered, so I put down the book I was reading and closed my eyes and drifted off on the sofa while she sat next to me and continued knitting the dark brown muffler (or scarf) she’s kindly preparing for me to help dodge winter’s fusillade of freezing bullets.

Any other married folks out there have any stories you’d like to share?




One thought on “What Am I Doing Here?

  1. Hello Stew, may I ask…are you American? The reason I ask that is my daughter is dating a korean and will probably be married to him within a few years. They are both graduates of a great college here, but she has mentioned to me that sometime she would probably go to Seoul, that’s where his family is, and be spending time there. Being the mother I am, I am concerned for her safety in a country where no one has blonde hair and blue eyes and 5’2 of pure innocence. The innocence is from my rose colored glasses on as a mother. She is 22 years old and they live on their own but a mother can’t help but ask someone who is living is Seoul if they feel safe there, considering all of the unrest between the north and south and just living in such a crowded city. If you can share with me your opinion I would appreciate your input.
    BTW, fantastic story, I’ll be following along for more of your adventures. Thanks
    ps my daughters boyfriend has been in our lives for about 5 years, so I am very familiar with alot of the things you are referring in your story, love it.

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