The Bibimbap Man
When the last of the meal carts comes rumbling down the aisle, I shun the safety of spaghetti and opt for bibimbap, whatever that is. Spaghetti is behind me now. Bibimbap is where I am these days. I position my tray table and stand firm in my talent for eating with chopsticks. Forks are a thing of the past, too. Lots of things are.
Boarding the plane this morning, there was every confidence of change to come, and the plan is working. I’ve not taken advantage of the free alcohol offered on international flights. I have not smoked a cigarette or a joint or slept with someone’s wife. I have not used a cell phone or checked my email. I have not looked at Internet porn or gone on any extended bathroom trips. No neglected birthdays, denied invitations, forgotten Mother’s Day presents. My life is righting itself, and I’ve not even made it to Korea yet.
Some people sort out the mishaps of life with marriages, divorces, shopping, eating, talking, psychiatry, mind-altering substances, or whatever else there is. I attempted some of these methods, ran terrified from others, and then chose to move to Korea when “sorting out” was no longer as appealing as starting anew. I wanted to cut the people at my farewell gatherings out of my immediate existence. I could no longer fool them with masks of culture experience or myths of rehabilitation. They’d seen me drift for too long and too far astray.
Even so, my old friends support the new me because good friends do that sort of thing. They would have no idea what bibimbap is, but if they knew I was eating it, they’d be excited for me, blindly. They don’t understand why someone would want to go to Korea. I’ve simply explained the whole ordeal as a bout of self-exploration and yearn for worldliness, but really, I want a new me with new friends that have no idea I’m crap, in a new place where people can’t speak enough English to question me, making new memories.
People have told me of the “wonderful experiences” to come and how much I’ll learn, how great this will be for me. We’ve talked about food and culture and producing half-Asian babies with exotic women. In reality, I’ve signed a year contract to teach children English, knowing a fair amount about the subject but having no idea how to change a diaper or wipe someone else’s ass. Being around kids makes me nervous and year contracts make me even more nervous, but the whole idea is that things will be different. I will be different. That’s the experience.
My empty bibimbap dish departs in the hands of a flight attendant wearing a Disney-store blue skirt suit with a sort of architectural hat. She’s Korean, which, being a novice, excites me. Oh, they really do look like that, I think. The bilingual presentation of arrival instructions creates a warm feeling in my stomach that turns over the new cuisine filling it. I watch the computer image of our plane on the big screen until the landing gear drops with a mechanical thud. Even though the previous fourteen hours offered ample time to think this through, I’m surprised to feel that Korea is no longer just a party conversation of well wishes. The time for talk is over.
My flight arrives at around 9:30 at night, and a tall, lean man named Mr. Kim holds a sign with my name on it and helps me with my luggage, the ATM machine, and buying a bottle of water for the “maybe two-hour” ride from the airport to wherever he’s taking me. Mr. Kim tells me he’s the one who’d written the emails—a horribly shattered version of English with surprising punctuation placement—and I fake both caring and being impressed, then remember the new me doesn’t fake giving a shit about things. The new me will be caring, concerned, honest, thoughtful, and not find excuses to act in ways I know are bad, and I now feel sincere regret for mocking Mr. Kim in my head. We were only being pleasant.
Before we leave the parking lot, I have a quick phone conversation with a man named Mr. Jeong, who is Mr. Kim’s and my boss, in which he formally welcomes me to Korea and checks that all is well. It is a failure, with Mr. Jeong chopping our language to bits and me supplying only affirmative and negative grunts, unwilling to make the polite conversation enjoyable for him. The old me was fine with being awkward; the new me loves interchange with strangers because that’s how you get to know new people. Mr. Kim asks if I like the radio, and I say yes as he cranks up the volume
Stuck in traffic, Mr. Kim asks me about LSU, or tells me about Florida. We talk about SEC football, and I find out that he went to college in Gainesville when he lived stateside. He liked to drink beer with the Gator fans and became one himself. By default, by ranking, LSU fans don’t often like Florida fans, and normally I’d have reeled off about various times we upset them, a sort of football hair-ruffling. But, I don’t care about football that way anymore, and only for the sake of conversation, I ask if a game or two is televised in Korea.
A pop song twinkles on the radio, and Mr. Kim adjusts the volume up again because he believes the song is good. He believes that I will believe that, and I can’t believe that someone could look at my thick beard and faded clothes and long hair, help me load my guitar into a van, and think that a five piece vocal harmony by shiny-faced boys would appeal to me. I squint at the lights of the seventh tollbooth we’ve gone through. The new me is going to be tolerant of certain musical tastes that make no sense. From now on, bad taste is okay. Dancing is still out of the question.
I cannot help but notice that my landing in Korea has not created one of these afternoon-at-the-coffee-shop, sports-are-for-Neanderthals, conversational people with N’Sync in his CD wallet (“For the ladies, you know”). New hopes are trailing through my head like smoke from spent fireworks. I haven’t changed just yet, but there is still the plan of the new me. I’m looking for a compromise.
Nathan, one of my new bosses, lives in an apartment with three other colleagues. Before I just ‘worked with people’, but now they’re ‘colleagues’, carrying a level of sophistication that surpasses my former restaurant co-workers. Mr. Kim takes his shoes off at the door. The old me probably would have just worn mine in the house and waited for someone to declare a “no shoes” rule, but I am learning to follow Mr. Kim’s lead. He’s a good man, an SEC fan in Korea. The jet lag is sinking in.
A tall blonde, Grace, offers me some of the dinner she’s cooked: spaghetti. I decline and neglect to tell her that the days of spaghetti are behind me. I am a bibimbap man now. Nathan is blondish, too, and a woman, and gives me a firm handshake. The old me assumed Nathan was a man. The smallest blonde, Hannah, who answered the door, hands me a beer, which I accept because it’s polite and not because that’s my general reaction to booze. Three blondes offering a buffet of handshakes, dinner, and drinks seems an unlikely introduction to working in Korea. They look nothing like the flight attendant.
I throttle down my beer while answering “yes” or “no” to some getting-to-know-you questions. Mr. Kim makes several phone calls. In Memphis and in Baton Rouge, I lived alone, but in Korea, that’s not me. I’ll soon be sharing an apartment, too. The old me would be pissed and groaning about having to live with people—probably to his new roommates, because where are they going to go—but the new me just wants some rest. We say goodbye to the blondes, and Mr. Kim and I get into the elevator, waving as the doors slide closed.
He presses “10” then places the palms of his hands on his hips before looking up at the ceiling then at me. I’ve never lived above the second floor. I’ve never lived in a building with more than four floors, which were a lot of floors for where I’m from. I think about climbing all those flights of stairs every day. You don’t just stop hating elevators, no matter where you are or who you become. What if I forget something and realize only when reaching the bottom? This could be exhausting. Should I talk to Mr. Kim about it?My eyes grow heavier with each floor we pass.
Two more blondes, a man and woman, are waiting in a sort of mid-life, mid-living room state of expecting shock. They introduce themselves as Canadians, and I’m slightly disappointed with, and thankful for, the missing cliché “eh” after questions--How you doin’, eh?—and that “about” doesn’t sound like “a boot.”. They are my new roommates, strangers, but normal people live with strangers all the time, right? Funny sitcoms are made about unlikely pairings (groupings in this case) where all the parties really grow in their appreciation of different people’s over-the-edge oddities: Oh no, Billy and his date are naked on my laundry again—ha, ha. They both stare at me for a moment. Aren’t they going to offer me a beer, some spaghetti, something?
We’ve barely exchanged names, and Mr. Kim announces it’s time to go. We’ve not bothered to sit or even gotten uncomfortable with standing in front of each other in silence for too long. He is taking me to a motel because the roommate that I’m replacing hasn’t moved his crap out of my room yet. The only me wishes for a question or two more before this new collection of friends abandons me in the middle of Where-the-Hell-Am-I, Korea. But, my roomies-to-be offer farewells, and Mr. Kim and I get into the elevator, waving as the doors slide closed.
* * *
The Rex Motel has a red neon sign that stretches vertically, the writing in English and moving from top to bottom. We park in a dark alleyway where Mr. Kim and I negotiate who’s going to carry what of my luggage up to the room. The elevator, the motel lobby, the room—all have soft neon lighting and no music. We take our shoes off before stepping in to stack my cases and baggage, then Mr. Kim shows me the television and the bathroom and how to put the key in this little box near the door to make the electricity work.
“Everything okay?” he asks.
He gives me a card with the hotel name and address on it and a card with his name and numbers on it. He puts his shoes on, and I follow his lead. He’s going to leave me here. We walk back downstairs to the van, where he lights a cigarette for the new me, who has decided smoking might not be so bad in these situations. He says he’ll call to check on me tomorrow, and I immediately look forward to it. He waits until my cigarette burns down to the filter.
After Mr. Kim drives away, the elevator climbs up to the third, no fourth, no third floor. Flashing my key and a worrisome smile to the lone receptionist, I make my way down the silent and soft neon-lit corridor to my room at the end in the corner. Inside, a motion-sensor light comes on to illuminate the foyer, an area about three feet squared and sunken, and after an accidental step into the bedroom, I leave my shoes there. When the rest of lights don’t come on, I jingle the keychain into its little box and watch the room change from dark to dim. The sleepiness wears off now that no one’s around.
Lying on the bed, a huge motorized lump wheels in slow circles and makes it necessary to always move to the right of or left of the mattress. There is a condom, an ashtray, and a box of tissue on the bedside table, a photo of a naked Korean woman anticipating ecstasy on the wall, her phone number printed beneath the picture. A small table holds a couple of instant coffee packets and two cups, and I know there is an energy drink but no tiny bottles of booze in the mini-refrigerator from when I checked earlier. The pieces come together. This is a special place I’m staying in.
Moans soak through from the adjacent room. I try to read, to ignore the TV, because the old me read too little and watched too much. The sole window in the room opens above the headboard and offers a view of construction materials in a little square spot in the middle of the building. Through it, I can look up and see the stars. Reverting back to thoughts of my old home or old town or old friends or old habits, the new me decides it’s okay to watch TV in these situations.
I discover two English-language shows. Both are movies, one is Playboy. The old me used to become enthused when hotels would have Cinemax because of the “skinemax” programming that comes on after eleven, but here at the Rex Motel, I watch Godzilla instead of Playboy. Godzilla does not improve in Korea in a love motel that, one can only assume, typically rents by the hour, on a bed with a motorized help-you-cum device, and the arm’s reach availability of tissue and a condom, if say a quivering leather-bound Asian beauty mistakens into the room. This is what I’ve run to for cleansing.
The old me would have sat in a stupor with a movie about a prehistoric dragon of destruction running lose in New York. He would have been content to mock the filmmakers and doubt the integrity of the actors who would sign on for such drivel. Who in the hell writes this shit, he would say repeatedly in a room that only he occupied, and he’d watch it to the very end. At which time, a prompt flip through the channels for soft-core girl-on-girl action would commence. The new me is above all this stupored mockery but not the misogyny. Godzilla has barely made it to New York, and I’m spent.
The big hoax of the Playboy Channel is that, once that crumpled wad of Kleenex hits the floor beside the bed, there’s little left in the way of entertainment. You might as well put on another Hollywood blockbuster 1950s dragon-based remake until your fluids replenish. You yearn for a Gatorade. The whole process is why I’m in Korea in the first place: I put all my energy into something, become bored, and change the channel. Now, my options have spiraled into Matthew Broderick or a bubbly blond bouncing on top of a skinny guy. Has anything improved?
I look at the traveling trunk my father bought me, the picture in the likeness of my lizard tattoo that my mother painted on the top of it, my guitar case, the backpack I bought three years ago for a trip to Costa Rica with an ex-girlfriend, and the stained pits of the t-shirt I’m wearing to bed. I look at these things transposed against the fake gray wood-grain paneling, the motion-sensor light that shuts on and off due the television, the collection of cover-the-smell potions on the vanity, and I know you never start anew. You only pile your crap in a new room and hope there’s enough closet space to hide it all.
I mock Godzilla because there’s nothing else to do. When that grows dull, I mock the bubbly blond because she probably really does believe in her acting. And Mr. Kim, the spaghetti dinner, the Canadians, even though they didn’t actually say “eh” or “a-boot.” I mock the Korean educators who have flown me over to teach their youth. The new me sighs, while the old me lights a cigarette and makes use of his new ashtray.
Why did I turn the TV on? Why can’t I turn it off? Ultimately, I switch to Asian ESPN, returning to my roots of all sports all of the time, and ignore the co-ed couple’s golf program. The new me attempts to sort through the old me, who only keeps the television on to have some soft light and company. The walls of the room lean in to watch this unfolding of self. The old me chants, “I told you so.” Thousands of miles and nothing is different.