Like an aneurysm, the boxcar café is so packed it is difficult to pass through.
From east to west is a stretch of 30 feet clotted with faces, longing for a destination. The slowest of the high-speed trains, the Mugunghwa removes me from the favelas of my Gyeonggi backwater, taking me far from the farm fields, far from the plastic coffin I call an apartment. Often, I’m off to to somewhere with promise. Mugung means eternity in Korean, but the trip is always over before I’ve read one chapter.
I’m sitting cross-legged on the blood-red dining-car carpet, listening to the operatic ramblings of some ajeossi hawking what appears to be a knockoff ShamWoW, watching the rolling stock of fashion cultists whose life amblings have come to resemble something of a televised runway. I don’t know who sets these trends but there are currently 10 million Korean women walking around in denim overalls, oblivious. The seats in the seatcars are always full, and I’ve now internalized the endless scuffling of feet up close in my peripheral as I’m staring out the window or maybe into it at the faint reflections in the glass.
I could be in one of the potentially-empty cars, floor minted in pale green paint, same color as the 메로나 honeydew ice pops from the GS. But those are also the bathroom carriages and I’d be gambling, sacrificing the only confirmed available real estate to possibly respire stale urine and settle on a surface historically lacquered with spilled Pepsi. Nah, fuck it. I’m comfortably numb sharing this plot of land with a half-drunk carton of banana milk and the salty cellophane of a kimbap triangle. The aircon is cranked. The mustard-yellow drapes are parted and sunlight is saturating the color of the ketchup-hued carpet. Indeed, life itself has become a cold hot dog.
I am surrounded by old people. Never in my life have I seen so many. Within these ocean borders is the fastest dwindling birthrate on the planet. Koreans age gracefully, and then all at once they explode into old age like grand-FOABs. At least that’s a frequent thought in my head. From my vantage point on the floor, ShamWoW ajeossi is so old he is seemingly composed of a burlap sack and his voice is something of an Asiatic cross between Tom Waits and Gilbert Gottfried. The dried skin of the pensioner sitting across from me looks like the shed scales of a dead rattlesnake. He’s not looking at me, though. His white dead eyes are fixated on some mawkish late life daydream, the kind that only passes through decaying neurons.
The air outside and all it envelops is hot and sticky. Outside the café car with the cranked A/C the world is a steam bath and walking down the street I find my wallet has become a warm soup of soggy blue bills. Back home at the villa, I’ve torn old pages out of my calender and stuck them on my door like post-it notes. Five months gone by, the fattest stretch of time my head has been occupied by foreign thoughts.
Rattling through the mountains, the Mugunghwa creeps further from home, where I live in a slumbering brick building whose hushed air of a morgue I’ve come to know as the texture of my midweek life. It’s the polar opposite to my Commercial apartment of the last four years when I used to come home under the streetlights from work to a chorus of voices, the kitchen sink lined with empty craft beer cans and someone just decided the weather was suitable for dropping acid today. Sometimes it seems impossible two places so far apart could exist in the same moment, yet you don’t really feel these things ’til you’re in Iran, playing pool with someone from the South Pole or you’re in Seoul, chatting with a Canadian.
I’m thinking about other things, too, puzzling out the faces of passersby, faces that seem completely knowable for the moment in the boxcar and are forgotten forever in far less time than that. It’s hard not to think of destruction, watching a young couple seated on short yellow barstools of the café car, nursing skunk beer, Hanoi-style. The peninsula exists in a constant flow of perceived ‘provocations’ between the DPRK and America – always some brinkmanship-flavored Franz-Ferdinand-just-got-assassinated type stuff. The aegis of public concern will mean little when the ICBMs are fired, and I live a two minute walk from the largest overseas US military base on the globe. Everywhere I go I see pixelated greygreen space invaders, sometimes the updated camo. I even teach some of my classes with the joint forces. We’re ripe to be blown up, but it’s pointless dwelling. At nighttime in my village drones fly overhead.
There’s an old timer at 3 o’clock watching the light of day flash by, head hatted in something Supreme and despite pushing 90 doesn’t think twice rocking billowy white pregnant pants and a purple floral psychedelic mosaic buttoned over an ancient chest of gnarled black hair. I’m drinking in the scene, thinking about relationships.
Expat relationships are hemmed in by the loud boundaries of time. The shorter the correspondence, the harder it is to salvage. Two weeks without a Kakao message is a radio silence. A new connection who doesn’t meet you on the first try is just a white scrap in a bingo wheel turning 50 million pieces of paper. Relationships like life here are mediated by the imminent threat of extinction. Sometimes, relationships end for no reason at all. Sometimes it’s like this and it’s a choice between meditating or drinking 11 beers, and 11 beers is always easier.
One day it’s a picnic on the Han River, young sun saeng nim’s, late GEPIK intakees, the odd Korean who craves escape from the stifling conservatism of their daily routine.
Highly temporary features: passersby from Brisbane, São Paulo, Dublin and New York, lounging on long layovers, odd pit-stops before climbing Mount Fuji, shooting the Sanja Matsuri, celebrating the Songkran in Koh Phangnan or Khoasan Road or Benjasiri Park.
One day I’m eating 빙그레 참붕어싸만코 with my armybros in the school commissary, the same ones who’ve been showing up for months. One pulls out his credit card and buys iced cream for 40 kids. He’s a good dude. Sometimes they’ll prep games. Gyopos translate. A class is canceled here and there and we talk about life.
I’ve barely blinked twice and they’re ten thousand feet in the air, flying overseas. Soon restationed in Monterey, Guam, Okinawa, Pensacola, Honolulu…
To my left is another one: eating dried squid out of the Lotteria chip bag, one olive hiking shoe unlaced, he’s got garishly unnecessary cross-country ski poles confederate, Beethoven hairstyle under a sandy mesh safari hat, an amber tote bag of frozen Makgeolli.
Like an aikido guru facing several opponents at once, ShamWoW ajeossi is jerking his head and shouting in three directions in defensive stance from a three-pronged train-attendant coup. I feel the weight of looks from aging strangers. A cross-section of the boxcar would show every head craned in one direction, a blinding profusion of geisha-white skin and too many pastels bottlenecking both exits. More often than not, the inborn unconsciousness of commutes will be sliced open by one of these sideshows. Long, lingering workdays and the pressure cooker of everyday life manifests itself in locals suffering the consequences of the mind’s tendency to self-destruct.
It’s hard not to think of destruction, watching a young couple seated on short yellow barstools of the café car, nursing skunk beer, Hanoi-style.
In Korea, life as an expat often feels like a trip on the Mugunghwa.
People come and go. Shit moves fast.