Saturday, January 3, 2009

Chagalchi Fish Market

About a year ago I stopped wearing a watch. I didn’t notice at first. My life had just become so scheduled down to the last minute. My kids popped up like clockwork each morning at 5:30 a.m. so I’d wake up and get their milk and sing them back to sleep, then work out at 6:00 and school at 7:15 or so and once you arrive there that ship runs like a Timex or maybe a Rolex I suppose, or most likely, in my case, one of those knock off versions, but at least I know the students escape at 2:30 and within an hour I’m to pick up my girls from pre-school for more milk, snacks, and crafts. SungJoo comes home at 5:30 and dinner is at 6:00 and when the girls begin to fill the house with fussy whines it meant bath and storytime at 7:00 and lights out by 8:00. This was my day. Everyday. Regardless of church or holiday or natural disaster. This was the code I lived for four and a half years since Xi’an was born and just amplified by the birth of two more. I never needed to look at a clock because I was just led by this current of momentum as each day passed, making me more and more numb to anything outside it.
I tried to explain this to JungMin. He’s my Korean brother-in-law, an elementary school teacher, who has this insane fascination with every aspect of my American life. He wants to know if Oregon has four seasons like Korea, and why I only eat toast and coffee in the morning instead of a heaping bowl of steamed rice and cabbage soup. He especially is interested in American education. Where do I stand in class? What textbooks companies do I subscribe to? Do I smile on the first day or wait until the last day of the year? He thinks my answers are crazy. I tell him I come in on the first day singing and that I’m most likely to jump on a desk to scare students to death. He laughs in disbelief. “Your classroom has no discipline? Don’t students respect you?” Now I’m laughing. “No, actually I plan the whole year out minute by minute. I know exactly what is happening and every minutia of inner-working mechanism and that’s the problem. I now have to schedule my improvisation, and that makes me nervous.”
JungMin changes the subject. He plays a verbal recording of his favorite nine year old student reciting a memorized story about a dog digging up a flower. He wants to know if she sounds like a native speaker. I tell him, “Yes, her intonation is fine. She sounds like my American niece, but the real trick is when someone asks her how’s it going? Can she answer?” This statement baffles him. “Why?” I explain in America it doesn’t matter how you talk only your ideas. Are you a creator, an innovator? American kids are forced to think all the time, make choices, defend their answers. “That’s what we value.”
After that he is quiet for a long time.
Later we are driving through the city of Pusan in this 8 passenger mini-van JungMin has rented, snaking through traffic and headed toward a day at the stupendous Chagalchi fish market downtown, and I feel bad that I’d hurt him with my comment, like I’d somehow forgot that Korea was the opposite to America. That here it didn’t matter the truth only the way in which you said it. That’s when I confessed about my absent wristwatch and how over the last few years I’d become this prosaic robot. That my American life had become like living under a heavy fog of comfort. Anything I ever needed or wanted I could have. I would buy a hundred and fifty rolls of toilet paper at Costco, two gallons of coffee at Starbucks, I had snow chains and car seats and broadband cable. I had become so at ease I’d lost my edge. This is why I wanted to get back overseas, to cut my teeth sharp again.
JungMin’s eyes scanned the road. “I envy that you are able to live so selfishly. We Koreans only think about our family. Their needs come first.”
Sure enough his answer stung, but what did I expect? I tried to explain that SungJoo and I were of course thinking about our children first. There would be Chinese immersion and culture, that this was a great opportunity. JungMin nodded and understood, but this idea of leaving American, the country that all of his students dream of living and studying in and moving to Asia seemed disconnected, like I was pushing the hands of a clock backward to live in the past. It was unnatural. All of those things, the bulk shopping, the supersized restaurants, the access to amenities, that’s precisely what he wanted. “Everyone in Asia desires to get out, to find life in the West,” he smiled as he brought the minivan into a parking spot, “But you travel in the opposite direction. Why?”
I wanted to say force of habit, or maybe it was because I was a fool, or that I had made every mistake imaginable and I was looking for redemption in the past. I wanted to explain. But just then Rebekah Bidan bit Xi’an on the arm and Lauren Kinu awoke all sweaty and screaming and it was time to bundle up for the bitter cold and head toward the wonders of Chagalchi market. Whatever answer I had, it would have to wait for another time.
The city of Pusan is a port. Sitting on the eastern heel of the country, the Koreans and Japanese may not agree on the name of the body of water between them, but there is no denying the significance of trade and commerce on this international metropolis. Chagalchi Fish Market has stood this way for centuries. A collection of restaurants and covered vendors hawking everything imaginable: blankets, shoes, jackets, trinkets, tools, fruit, and a mix of open air fresh sea food on display from sun up to sun down. The market brims with life: Racks of fish on plywood boards beside squatter dive eateries. Old weathered women in red rubber waders barking prices of the day’s catch, their eyes so hard their voices so shrill and beaten. An old man slices an eel on a stone while another cleaves the mucousy tentacles of an octopus and places them on a plate before a group of bundled men. They shoot back stiff clear drinks and shove the still squirming, writing legs into their mouths and nod to one another grimacing. An old lady, ancient in wrinkles, stands pointing over a table of oysters and blowfish, clams and starfish, and a hanging green sea turtle the size of a hubcap. We pass through all of this. Stomping through sliced fish heads and blood soaked pavement mixed with sea water gushing from black hoses into drains. Xi’an hiding her face and looking through one eye and Rebekah Bidan sucking her thumb in anticipation of the next exhibit as if we’re wandering the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museum. There is an albino rat in a cage the size of a small dog. There are headless, featherless chickens soaking in water. There are shaved dogs in cages and tables of severed pig’s heads used for cultural ceremonies of luck, meant to turn a person’s fortune when money is stuffed into the snout. We pass through all of this on our way across the street to Nampodong, the trendy posh district of downtown full of expensive boutiques, cinemas, and western restaurants on the other side of the main highway through the city. Here we regroup in a coffee shop, climbing up the stairs to unravel from coats and scarves and mittens and stocking caps in a booth around hot pots of tea and good old hot chocolate. I remember when the coffee in Korea was strained through recycled filters, when Nestle’s Quick was a black market purchase. Today, wouldn’t you know it, we’re in a Starbucks, the very corporate establishment I sought to escape from back home. Yet my wife is insistent. We’ve had a rough day, and she needs a little bit of memorized comfort. She tells me o take pictures if I want to live in the past. “Go outside and find the Korea you miss. See if you can.” And so I bundle up and head back out into the cold, moving away and fighting against the blisteringly frozen wind toward my memory.
Yet instead of taking pictures I have a different agenda. Ever since arriving I have been keeping envelopes of evidence of my travels. It’s sort of a game I play. The paper wrapping from a chopstick pair with an inscribed poem, a cartoon cut from a newspaper revealing a stereotype, a lucky coin or fallen leaf, anything that is timeless and translates to people that I am thinking of them regardless of when we have last spoken face to face or where I am standing in the world or what the time difference is between us. Today I had just such an envelope in my pocket and after taking directions to the nearest post office, I headed out in that direction with the notion that an adventure was upon me.


The streets of Nampodong are alive and bustling. Back alley after alley of one lane head on traffic, horns blaring, motor scooters dashing, bicycles flashing, the lights of signs hovering on every building blinding my eyes as I strain forward to see. There are billiard halls, and tea shops and beer houses and dozens of expensive clothing stores crowded by street vendors tightening their grip, constricting my every move with even more cell phone tables blasting pop songs from speakers and rack after rack of jackets and shoes and game consoles flickering and cheap eats of sliced fried squid and dokboki rice sticks in red paper paste on stoves with fish sausages and silk lavra tubs and coffee girls in miniskirts go-go dancing to karaoke music while carrying trays of Dixie cups., and there are just so many people. How could this many people exist in the world? It is beyond dimensions of time and space. By the time I reach the post office the veins in my legs are throbbing and I laugh to myself as I step inside and mail my letter so surprisingly easy. I remember a time when Korean stamps came with glue stick and an abacus, but now the woman in yellow uniform smiles, her pan-caked face and penciled eyebrows the only reminder of those long lost days. I want to take her picture, to preserve her, but the moment is now past as I explain I am sending these letters to America. There is someone important there who is waiting for word. She understands and I am off, racing back the way I came. I know that I will be late. I know that I am already fifteen minutes behind schedule and I resist the urge to not care. Too much depends upon me returning on time. I can’t escape it. Or can I? I begin sprinting. Flying past throngs huddled at bus stops and splitting conversations between women on a stroll, I cut across streets jaywalking and barely miss being sideswiped by a surging taxi and leap a curb and hurdle a box of apples and peddler’s box of junk. Through the old black market where ten years ago I first bought a block of cheese, I knife under racks of mink coats and displays of knock-off luggage. I am a blur. I cannot be caught. Toward the movie theater and in through the swinging doors I see SungJoo and JungMin and EungJoo his wife and all of our children smiling. They are just finishing the last sip of their venti mochas and grande machiatoes and I strip at the table. I take off my heavy coat and unzip my blue sweatshirt and throw off my hat and unwrap my scarf and I am standing in a black t-shirt and I am wet and breathless and heaving and laughing and I step back through the doors into the frozen air so that the steam is rising off me in waves like a cooked piece of meat and I know then that this time, at least this time, I have won. That I have cheated time. That it could not contain me. It was something so simply realized as I looked over and there is this fossilized man wrapped in blankets beside a space heater selling mittens and woolen hats as if he were a statue. His face is so weathered and beaten and he has no expression as I smile and bow to him and back away into my cloud of steam rising from my naked neck and arms and wrists and hands. It is the best moment of the trip to Korea so far. I was young and alive and I thought about all the moments I’ve had like this, the profound and poignant moments that have happened when all the people I truly care about are on the other side of the world and they are asleep. They slept right through my epiphany, and if that is the case, what does time matter? What do days or weeks or years or someone’s age truly matter? We are as old as we feel. We are as withered and beaten and numb as we are led to be. Standing in this ancient place that has seen so many changes, that has stood the test of time, I am not caught on a stick like some hooked fish. There is no price tag on me. I am constricted only by our own mind, my truest time device, and bound only to possibility.

1 comment:

  1. funny...
    i was telling someone this about time 2 days ago... that its just made up... but i can choose to measure my living in a different way then the space it occupies...

    ReplyDelete