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"I was always afraid that someone would find me, And was saddened when no one actually found me"

“I was always afraid that someone would find me,
And was saddened when no one actually found me”

He went to Japan on vacation and brought back this greeting card with a cat on it that sang when you pulled a tab on the side. He recorded a video of himself showing off the card, and his eyes followed the tab as he pulled it, left to right. The video looped automatically and I watched his eyes move: back and forth, back and forth. It looked like he was staring at me, but he was staring at himself, watching himself. His brown eyes are seared into my memory along with the little pink Japanese singing cat. We all had high hopes for that year of our lives. We thought it would go well; that there might be another year after if we were happy. And we tried to be. But the months slowed down as we went, the days stretched out, and the mornings came earlier. The smog in the sky stayed put, blocking out the blue, even in the summer. We were all left to ourselves, by ourselves, recording little moments of time, trying to share them with others. But when we left, there was nothing left of it in us to share. There was no moral to our story. No punch line to the bad joke. Just a sort of gray smog covering strange hangul memories.

 

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She asked me if I was doing alright; having a good time; not too overwhelmed; wanted some more beer. A grin sprung from my frown of a mouth.

“I’m great,” I said, as she leaned in closer to hear my response over the chatter of the restaurant.

“She’s shy,” another girl piped in.

“Not really,” the first girl shot back.

Not really. My typical response. Or maybe I more often go with, “Sometimes.”  I like to talk when I have something to say. Otherwise, I like to listen. Or not even listen; just sit there, as I did that night, surrounded by sound, watching, not comprehending, drinking my watery beer.

I don’t know how extroverts could survive in this city. Seoul. Maybe they plan weekly meet-ups at Korean-Irish pubs, and there they let out the bottled-up words they wanted to say on the street, on the subway, in the grocery store, to their own neighbors, to the nice-looking old lady sitting with her little dog on the park bench, to the 20-something boy in the cereal aisle in their local grocery mart.

Or maybe they speak in different ways — with their hair, like the Korean teenager with bleach-blond bangs, like the caucasian 30-something man I saw from across a busy street, sporting a bright-red mohawk. And with their clothes, opting-out of the apparent all-black Korean apparel fashion trend, and instead going for jeans, red converse, a plaid shirt, and a ball cap. He looks more American than any American I’ve ever seen, I thought to myself, glancing at him as we sat across from each other on the train.

It’s hard, even for me, the listener. It’s hard to listen when there is no sound, no quiet smiles, no polite small talk. It’s hard to sit, alone, in a subway car full of people who are also alone, each one diving nose-first into their cell phone screens– from the teeny-boppers to the grandmothers in jogging suits — or else taken out from the reality of the world in some other way: an ipod, a book, a nap. Sardine-pressed so closely to one another, yet so far apart; so alone. And there isn’t much else I can do but join them — ear buds in, book out, or eyes closed.

In a way, it is peaceful, and it does, in a way, feel like a community. But it also, in a way, makes me want to be loud. It makes me want to knock the phones from each of their hands, close their books, take from them their music. I want to yell at them, loudly or silently, tell them to look each other in the eye, to smile, to be people together, not just riders; living, not just moving through the motions (of the jerky subway car.)

I was writing a letter to a friend today (snail mail, anyone? Heard of it?) talking about how even when you live in foreign countries, there are times when it doesn’t feel foreign at all. And then there are times when your “immigrant” status hits you right in your face when you’re crossing the street. Oh wait, that was a guy on a bike. But you get my point.

Today something like that happened, but in a positive way. There I was, wandering around a Seoul neighborhood, with only a vague idea of how to get back to the subway station, searching for a “mart” (aka grocery store) that was bigger than the dinky one in my neighborhood. As I walked, reading the signs that were in Korean like I knew any Korean at all, I enjoyed the nice Spring morning, the weird spindly trees, and noted the location of the numerous parks and libraries and cafes I passed. I had walked up and down three of the four cross-streets near the subway station when I finally found a big ole Mart. I stepped inside, grabbing bananas and hot sauce! and tortillas! and wandered around in the refrigerated section. I was doing some more eye-skimming of Korean words: colorful bags of something that looked like potato chips, crazy-large bottom-feeder fish that were in giants tanks in the seafood area, some tiny bottles of Yakult.

While this gazing and wandering was happening, a song came on the radio and for some reason it caught my attention. The beginning was only melody, no lyrics, and my face crumpled in confusion. How did I know this song? I’m not yet versed in any K-pop, I don’t listen to the radio. I know approximately zero Korean songs. And then…

Paolo Nutini started singing to me in the middle of the snack aisle. In English! My head whipped back in silent laughter. I was just listening to this song, talking about this song to my friends! Good old Paolo. It was a beautiful moment; I could have cried it was so beautiful. But I didn’t. In that moment, there in that strange store in a strange neighborhood in a new country, I didn’t feel so far away from anything, I didn’t feel so foreign. And I may have danced a little after that, still wandering around my new favorite Mart, singing with Paolo and pondering buying a weekly supply of seaweed.