The Adoration Of The Magi

A strange fatigue overcomes me. A pallor hangs in the gray air, under the white sky and the cigarette-colored trees.

Classes have started at the university. I was so frightened of the beginning of the semester, which was an incredible three weeks ago, but now that I have roared through all that work and time—now that I find myself with a strange sudden moment of quiet peace—I can do nothing, in my exhaustion, except think over everything that has come between then and now.

There is a blurred kaleidoscope of memory flashing through my mind, and it is almost too much for me to pick even a single image to describe. Sleep seems to annihilate most of these glimmering tears of light, and then a new day piles inside and shoves the rest of them into alcoves which I cannot access.

Half of my classes are for writing, and half are for conversation. The writing classes require intensive lecturing on boring but useful subjects, such as how to compose a paragraph; the conversation classes involve listening to and patiently correcting the same mistakes I have heard for years now. The bizarre accents and intonations remain looping inside my mind like commercial catchprases. “I’m habbuh headache.” “Let me take-uh the your chair.”

As I walk around these classes, talking in a friendly way that hopefully does not seem too pompously professorial, observing, listening, reading, whoever I really am separates from this pseudo-professorial character in the new gray suit, and wonders what the hell he is actually doing, and what the reason for all of it is.

When I was in college, and in love with someone who did not love me, I likewise found myself in love with the world spinning beneath my feet. The Adoration of the Magi. I worshipped the dew in the grass, the trees, the wind, the clouds. I wandered the forests, singing and whistling, and explored, and watched for birds. Now that I’m so busy with teaching at this university, and with tutoring on the side, I scarcely have time to even consider “the unfathomable, all-pervading domain of Mystery, which is everywhere under our feet and among our hands,” as Thomas Carlyle puts it in Sartor Resartus—perfectly wording the thoughts I used to have the time to think.

Instead I find myself daily veering back and forth from a very content and satisfied joy to the most intense misery—of the sort that would have me hailing a taxi and telling the driver to head to the train station, there to wait for the next train to Incheon, where I might eventually catch a plane to some other shore—thanks in large part to being married with a young baby in the house. There is always so much to do, so much to be happy about or apologize for, that I almost never find myself dwelling on why I was born a human and not an insect.

Still, the memories come. A girl in a conversation class whispered (and refused to speak) of how she likes to go to some of the casinos in a northern part of this country because she once won around five hundred dollars in the space of two hours while gambling. The hands of a student with the strangest name I have ever encountered in Korea—that is saying quite a lot—it was strange even to his fellow Koreans—were I to reveal it here, it would be easy for you to find him—his filial syllable sometimes doubles as an onomatopoeia for farting—his hands were so dry, almost bleeding, cracked and white, like he’d dipped them in toothpaste which had then hardened to a fluoridinous cake. Another student claimed he was absent last week because his friend died while serving, as a draftee, in the military, during peacetime.

It is interesting to see the students stop working, and start fooling around, and then start working again when I approach them. More interesting still when someone blushes after I ask a direct question. Absurd to think that I have the power to make people blush, or that people take me (or these classes) so seriously.

One of the students was blushing because I asked him where he had bought a certain tourist shirt—one with a cartoon map of Brooklyn pasted to the front. There were the words “Park Slope”, which I had not seen in years. While he was blushing I felt tears rushing to my eyes, and hid them from everyone successfully, beneath my hollow-eyed exhaustion. I am comfortable in Korea, this place is my home, I’m even losing weight because I spend several hours a day walking around, but it would be so nice if I could just hang around someone’s stoop for the weekend—under the smelly gingko trees!

There was a day this week when every single interaction with my fellow English professors was so unbearably awkward I felt as if I had finally answered the question of whether Korea is fucking me up or I was just fucked up to begin with. Then, the next day, with the same people, there was this sudden casual warmth, and a feeling of real friendship.

There is the constant worry that my son will not speak English fluently. That he will not even be comfortable with the language.

It feels good to let myself write, but I’m exhausted now, because I have three more hours of tutoring coming up this evening, which, when added to today’s university classes, will amount to about seven hours of near-continuous talking and lecturing. Three seven-hour days in a row leave me anxiously awaiting those moments when this ridiculous voice goes quiet and I have time to think over the book I’m editing, the books I want to write—should I give colonizing another planet another go? or work on time travel? or get back to historical fiction?—and the TV show I want to make, essentially a parody of Korean television. A filmmaker moonlighting as a professor encouraged me to pursue my idea yesterday while I was sipping at a two dollar kiwi smoothie, but I won’t have the time for years, I think.

If I were to make a movie about all of this, I would model it on some of the opening scenes of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. You would see students sitting at tables before vast windows overlooking the waking trees and the brick buildings and the bare mountains and the white skies and the tar paths clopping with loud skirts, shuffling with the silence of the sneakers worn by the gray-robed monks. These young women and old nuns would always be walking away from you, from left to right. Cigarette smoke would wreathe everything. No one would talk, nothing would happen, and maybe the camera wouldn’t even move: there would just be this infinity of students facing each other, practicing their English, while people walk to their classes outside.