Wintery Sunday Afternoon – Bonggok-dong
Back in Korea. I missed a blizzard and the country turned white in my absence.
A couple of months ago a family of kittens arrived in the vacant lot I cut through on my way to the bus stop. Korea’s has a combination of advanced and primitive garbage collection laws: all foodstuffs must be seperated for recycling, but then they are merely dumped in a large pile on a street-corner, and this means there is a feral cat problem. All the cats, I was told, have diseases, but of course I tried to befriend the family of kittens anyway. I was unsuccesful. They always ran off when I approached, no matter how much I tried to fascinate them with twigs scratched erratically across the ground. Over the weeks they grew, and eventually scattered.
This afternoon I found one dead in the snowbank by the side of the road. It was half-grown and very thin. I don’t know why it died: the cold, hunger, a car. And it wasn’t my pet, and I won’t say it filled me with grief, but I’d watched it play, and watched its mother hunt for scraps in the rubbish-piles, and I felt bad that it was dead, and bad because it seemed to represent a feeling that had been with me since I got back to Korea yesterday.
In the last issue of the Gyeongbuk newsletter I wrote in a somewhat breezy and flippant way about how I was soon to return to Australia for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t know how that would make me feel. Some of my predictions turned out true – I did find myself saying “neh” to shop assistants, and once even bowed farewell. Other predictions didn’t come to pass. I had fun, saw friends, ate a lot of food. I cut all my hair off – I now have the shortest haircut in all of Korea, I think – and got tanned at the beach.
But the most intense feeling I had was one I couldn’t have predicted. I wrote in that essay about how, in being here, it seemed as if Australia had faded, had receeded and become dream-like; how I had neglected friendships back home, not out of any lack of care, but simply because Australia seemed so distant, not only physically but emotionally. And I’ve heard other people here express something similar. I had thought it might be difficult to adjust back to Australian life, but after a day or two of slight disorientation – everybody had such strong Australian accents, and dressed so badly! – I found it almost effortless.
What I hadn’t expected was that after a week or so, Korea would start to recede in the same way Australia had. Gradually, then suddenly, Korea acquired the quality of an intense dream: luminescent and unreal. Like a dream, it was an experience that seemed wholly believable when I was in it, but in retrospect seemed impossible. The memories were of a place too vivid to be real: too much colour and noise, busy, foreign. But it was a good dream, and I missed it.
Of course I knew intellectually that it was real, and I was going back to Korea soon. But on some emotional level I couldn’t process this. Home was so normal, and though it felt like it had been a long time since I’d been doing these normal things, it didn’t feel at all strange to be doing them. And this added to my sense of the unreality of Korea.
During my second week home, I began to feel increasingly agitated, anxious to get back and assure myself of Korea’s reality; the reality of my town, my won-room, my friendships. And since I’ve been back I’ve been keen to walk around, make contact with friends, touch things, see things…
I’ve only been back a day, and I still feel emotionally shaky. Korea feels real again, but what is new is this: the feeling, the certainty, that time is passing. Today I saw a post on facebook, a friend from here who has now gone home, and I caught my breath as my mind shied from the evidence of time’s passage. For a long time, my future here seemed to stretch out forever. A year seemed infinite, it was always still only beginning, I was just getting started. I extended my contract without much thought, because the feeling was so strong that I had only begun here, and it felt wrong to think of this time as half-over. When I left to go back to Australia, I noted to myself that it had only been a little more than four and a half months since I’d arrived. No time at all! But now it is well past five, heading towards six, heading towards a time when by any calculation the end will be closer than the beginning. I’ve always had this vulnerability to time – a sort of pre-emptive nostalgia, where I start to miss things before they’re even gone – and it’s come over me today. I still want to do so much here… I like this dream, and don’t want it to end, but there is a touch of something about it now – a sense of finality, a hint of mortality, the dark promise of the changing seasons. A dead cat in the snow is far too strong a metaphor, and I won’t call it a harbinger.
A caution, maybe: time is finite. Six months is short. Let’s make something of it.