Oedong, Gimhae, 2 a.m.
I like going out alone at night. It’s quiet. And, there’s a much better chance of this happening than going out in the early morning. Because as much as I like that, too, I’m just not a morning person. I’ve somehow always found time for the night.
Even Korea, a dense slab of concrete and people, has its quiet moments. I imagine out in the country, a nighttime stroll on a pitch-black, streetlight-less road could be downright scary. In a good way. In that “we always think we know, even if deep down we don’t know, and that scares us, so we pretend we do know when really, we don’t. But right now, I really don’t know” sort of way.
But Oedong is not the country. I can walk to Starbucks in 10 minutes. But,if I wanted, I could walk about 15 minutes in one direction, ride my bicycle about 15 minutes in the other, and be in the closest approximation to the country one can hope to achieve at a moment’s notice around here. I just accidentally wrote “norice” instead of “notice,” which made me think of Asia, specifically Korea’s, incredible amount of rice. What would this place be like without rice? Fatter, I suspect. Modern Koreans lament gained weight and often cite rice as one of the big culprits (fried chicken, beer and soju probably don’t help). But before western diet ideas began to take shape, there was rice. And there were many more skinny Koreans.
Oedong is not the country. It’s not even quiet, per se. My apartment rests on a road parallel to another road, a main thoroughfare, which even in the small hours hosts cars and horn-blasting motorcyclists from time-to-time. Honestly, what is that about? My theory, not yet confirmed (would anyone like to?), is that delivery guys honk their horns incessantly while making deliveries in an attempt to not get killed, as traffic laws here are more suggestions. But, at 2 a.m., when no one is around except for one foreigner sitting on bench in the dark underneath trees, eating a convenience store dinner of fried chicken and rice? I’m honestly curious.
While cars and bikes occasionally fly down the main road, the side roads offer their own other rare sounds on this Chuseok Eve. A woman shouts “omma!” from one apartment. Two co-workers talk about something from a take-out restaurant. Another girl whines “waaaaaayyyyyyy (why)?” from somewhere out of eyeshot in that horrible way (really, “waaaaaaay” are you doing that?) that someone said some do here because it makes them seem cute and helpless.
Between these sounds, my plastic 3,000 won sandals go “clap!” “clap!” “clap!” upon the street.
What does someone native to this country, who maybe has spent the majority of their life in this neighborhood, think of a bearded, white foreigner walking down their street at 2 a.m.? Earlier, while going to another convenience store for an ice cream, I saw a man sitting on the curb beside a building who might have been Pakistani, or Nepalese, or Indian. Or something definitely not Korean. I instinctively, I hope imperceptibly, flinched, and felt immediately ashamed. But, why feel ashamed? It happened. I never wished the man ill will. Still, for the occasions I have felt on the outside of this country for being different, I felt ashamed that, deep down, we all want consistency.
We are products of a chaotic existence attempting to find order. We look for that in consistency, in the expectation that things are how they are and will forever be that way, even if our better sides know otherwise. In Korea, the vast majority of the time you only see one person: the Korean. Anything else tries to upset the apple cart, and that part of us clinging to consistency is going to flinch. No shame, just nature.
I wonder what he was doing sitting there. Was he waiting for a friend? Was he going for a walk and decided to take a rest? Did he have a fight with someone and left his apartment to cool off? He didn’t look particularly heated. He looked relaxed. I wonder what he thinks about in South Korea at 2 a.m.?
Later, after the ice cream (not very good, it tasted like it had been in the freezer too long), after watching a movie on my laptop (“Enemy,” which ended up being very enjoyable), it was 1 a.m. and I was still awake. It always seems like there is something to clean in my apartment. Something to organize. Clothes, clean and dirty, are on the floor. A coffee cup from yesterday is on one table. My tea cup from before taking a three-hour nap earlier in the evening is on another. Both still have liquid. I finish the tea and bring both cups to the kitchen, disposing of the old coffee in the sink, the tea bag in the trash.
I realize I have moved from the past tense to present in the previous paragraph. I’m going to leave it alone.
Still awake, I continued to do some light cleaning. I took the clothes off the floor and put them on my bed (still unfolded and put away hours later), put about 5,000 won of loose change back into the piggy bank and replaced it on the counter. Patrick O’Hearn’s “Chance” plays from my laptop on the bed while white Christmas lights brightly illuminate the room. A suitcase I had removed from my closet a couple days before to look for an unused bicycle lock was still on the floor. I opened it and saw fall and winter clothes, some I could probably take out of storage and begin to cycle into my repertoire. I took out a thin sweater I bought at Target three years ago, got bored and abandoned the task.
By 2 a.m. I was feeling hungry. It was time to go for a walk. I put on a pair of shorts, slipped on my cheap sandals and went outside.
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.