Thursday, July 9, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

For the final post in the Finding Home: Other Voices series, I'm pleased to share the work of author and musician, Dave O'Leary.

In April 1998, I accepted a job teaching English in South Korea. It was a one year contract, but I was open to more, two years perhaps, or three, as one can never tell how things will go, and at that time, the idea of “home” was a changing thing for me, a moving target. I’d departed Columbus, Ohio just four weeks earlier and spent twelve days driving west and living in a van. In Seattle, I had no job, no girlfriend, no band. I was staying at a friend’s on a friend’s couch and was completely unattached so it was rather easy to get on that plane even knowing that it wasn’t travel, that I wasn’t a tourist, that I wouldn’t be “home” in a week or two, that unlike the planned exotic vacation with points of interest in mind and itineraries and hotels and return flights not to miss, I had no idea where I was going. It was work, living, life, and I even had the thought somewhere over the Pacific with a beer in one hand and a coffee in the other that perhaps I was doing just that, going home.

I started teaching thus, got into Korean life, ate kimchi, dried squid, raw squid, silkworms, drank lots of soju, vomited lots of soju, and the weeks rolled into months in that first year overseas. My students both young and old wanted me to be more Korean and often told me I was becoming such as I had a healthy appreciation for their beloved kimchi in all its varieties, especially in stew. “Soju over whiskey,” I told my adult students. “You are becoming Korean,” they’d say. And there was bulgogi (translated literally as fire beef), and rice, rice all the time. I was learning to eat again. “On name alone,” I told my early morning class of businessmen, “give me fire beef over a New York strip.” They laughed, exclaimed, “You are becoming Korean!” I met a woman too, and under the guise of teaching her English we went to bars and lakes and love hotels by the hour where the only English spoken was whispered and was in no way suitable for any classroom, and the rest was Korean. “Han bawn daw?” One more time? I married that woman, gave her my paychecks. She gave me an allowance.”See, you are becoming more Korean!” my private class of semi-lonely housewives told me.

The wife and I used my allowance once for a trip to Guam where we camped on the beach. It was all I could afford but was much preferred to a hotel as it gave perspective. It made us feel miniscule and detached to do such, to stand, lay, kneel, and other things for four days in front of a tent on the sand of that little island and see the massive ocean that enveloped everything, to set our own rhythms to the constant swooshing exhale of the waves. It made all else seem insignificant. Where we were from did not matter, nor did where we were going. Only the moment had any significance, the now. Home, homeland, places or origin had no meaning.

The years in Korea went on like that, with the same effect as the Pacific. I didn’t yearn for or even want to go back to America, and not for any reason other than the desire simply did not come. I never thought, “Oh, I’m American. I should go back soon.” Being alive was all we cared about, the next night of fire beef, the next shots of soju, and love, and yes, sex too. “Ma sheet nun in sang”, I said in my improving language skills, delicious life, and in my daily world, I only spoke English when teaching. I ate all that awesome food and thought it was changing me. I slept with the woman, and argued, studied the language more and more learning to think in a new way, and slept less and whispered less with that same woman, fought more, much more. I didn’t feel quite as Korean as my students wanted me to feel, but I felt less and less American, less from any one bit of earth. I lived literally half a world away from my place of birth and felt derived from each country, half of this, half of that, which didn’t add up to either one. I was composite. Labels and distinctions fell away. I was country-less, lived in a world where home and fatherland couldn’t be located on a fold out map, only in the mind, the heart, the soul, and the eyes too, the hands, the genitalia.

We were living southwest of Seoul in the eastern part of Ansan (Sangnok-gu) in 2001, and on the morning of September 12th, I woke as usual and started brewing coffee. I sat in front of the computer and turned it on to check email. I was hungover from the soju of the night before so I leaned heavily on my desk, clicked the icon to open the web browser and found the internet was full of nothing but images from New York, planes crashing into buildings, and buildings crumbling. The debris, the fog, the panic and fear were quite palpable even on the other side of the world. Given the time difference, it was night in Korea on the 11th when things were literally going down. I was drinking soju in an effort to get through the evening with as little nagging as possible, and I succeeded. We drank shots and shots and ate kimchi pancakes and actually had a good time. The TV was off. Thelonius Monk was on. We had no idea that as we laughed and listened and drank and rolled about the bed that people were dying.

I didn’t know what to feel there on the morning of the 12th, there but somewhere between here and there in a place without borders, but I couldn’t break away from the images, the news reports, the death. I thought I was OK so I made the drive over to the school in Suwon at 2:00 and didn’t notice that the other teachers left me to myself, seeing perhaps something in my eyes that spoke of origins and that wanted to be left alone. My last class that day was at 7:00 for a group of mid-level middle school students who were in no way motivated to study English every evening after a long day at their actual schools and at other after-school schools such as mine. They were usually loud and spoke Korean in class, made every effort to ignore my teaching. I couldn’t blame them, and they weren’t bad kids so I tried to make due, but on that evening, they were quiet when the bell rang. They just sat and stared up at me. They’d never been that way, and the silence put me at a loss. After a moment, a girl raised her hand.

“Are you OK, David Teacher?”

The concern was unexpected, and it got me. I looked at a map of America on the wall, exhaled as the ocean of Guam had but with no swoosh, no power, answered in a hesitant voice, “Yes … I am Tracy … Thank you,” but they all just sat still with the knowledge of something I’d almost forgotten. It was the reason for the question. Home may be where the suitcase is, but not the homeland, not the core, not the definition, and it did matter. It’s why people that wouldn’t speak so much as a syllable to each other back home were the best of friends there on the streets and in the bars of Seoul. There was understanding that came from origins. I was living in Korea, but it wasn’t home, and I wasn’t the least bit Korean. I never would be, no matter how much kimchi I ate, or how much soju I drank, or vomited, or the amount of sex and argument had with a Korean woman. I looked at the class. “You guys want to play Monopoly?” It wasn’t much, but it was best tribute I could give to the fallen in the moment. We erected houses and hotels in lieu of skyscrapers, and the students were good. They organized into teams. Tracy said, “I want to be on your team, David.” There was laughter, even merriment, but between every roll of the dice, I looked over at that map on the wall and wondered when I would go home.

After work, I went out for soju with some of the other teachers. They knew the same thing my students had, and there were no comments about how Korean I was becoming. There were instead silent toasts, words of comfort, “I’m sorry.” When I got back to my apartment, there was no hug, no kiss, no tender words. She was standing there. “Why are you home so late?”

I took my shoes off and stepped into the kitchen. “I’m not.”
Dave O'Leary is a writer and musician living in Seattle. His second novel, The Music Book, is a collection of the writings O'Leary has done about Seattle bands for both Northwest Music Scene ( and the now defunct Seattle Subsonic. It is a fictional narrative wrapped around and within the actual music, a story about live music in Seattle and, more broadly, about the power of music in our lives. A CD of the music experienced in the book has been released by Seattle indie label, Critical Sun Recordings.

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