I can't say that I've had a string of miserable birthdays, but as a basis for comparison, I turned 40 the same year that my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. That year, 2009, my family got me a spanking-new Macintosh desktop that served me faithfully until it conked out in 2014, when I was teaching down in Daegu. At the little party, people sang happy birthday for me, including Mom, who warbled weakly but wonderfully. It was, to put things politely, a bittersweet moment. A Mac was a wonderful gift, but at the same time, I knew my mother was slowly slipping away from us.
Over the course of this latest August 31st, my thoughts tended Mom-ward. I set out, early in the morning, for the Goyang Immigration Office, all my F-4 visa-application paperwork bundled together in my bag. Truth be told, the night before, I had printed out and/or assembled more than the required documents, all of which I color-scanned into my computer for future reference, not knowing whether I'd ever see those documents again. (Turns out I was right to do so.) Among the documents, I slipped in Mom's death certificate, which I felt would be important: the certificate showed Mom's married name, but it also showed her parents' names, which would tie Mom to the Korean jaejeok-deungbon, i.e., the Korean family register, which listed Mom simply as "Suk Ja."
I got to Immigration a bit late—around 9:30AM. This didn't worry me, as the Goyang office has never been crowded. A guy intercepted me as soon as I stepped into the office. Before I could even take a ticket to be served, the guy told me I'd have to fill out different forms from the one I'd found online. He handed me three sheets of paper to fill out, then let me go at it. I admit I fudged: I listed my current residence as Goyang City, which is no longer true. But this was for practical reasons: had I listed my new and current location, there would have been employment-related questions, e.g., "How did you get housing for a job you supposedly haven't started yet?" Better to play the role of a prof whose contract has just expired (my contract with Dongguk University did, in fact, expire on my birthday), and who is running out the clock on the validity period of his alien-registration card (ARC). Later on, I'm going to have to get my ARC changed to reflect my new address in Daecheong Tower.
Before my arrival at Immigration, I had mentally prepared myself for a fight. Although the Goyang Immigration staff have been nothing but nice to me over the course of my several visits, I had been worried about one staffer's remark at the end of my previous visit: if Mom's documents showed different surnames, this would be a problem, and there'd be extra steps in the procedure, i.e., more delays. That was why I felt Mom's death certificate was crucial: it showed her married name, but also showed her parents' names, inextricably linking her to her Korean family and heritage. As the immigration officer looked over my paperwork, he asked me questions, mostly about the English-language documents: where was Mom's name on this document? You said her parents' names are listed, but where are they on this sheet? Things like that. I obligingly pointed out every bit of information the man asked for, trying to smooth the process for him as much as possible. The last thing I wanted to do was to put a bureaucrat in an obstreperous, and therefore unhelpful, mood. As it turned out, I needn't have worried: in the end, the officer looked over everything, said, "Just a minute," left me in suspense for several minutes as he went somewhere else, then came back and told me I needed to pay W120,000 at the other office down a short hallway.
I was flooded with relief: the worst was over, and that's what I live-tweeted. Even better, it turned out that the lady in the payment office charged me only W100,000 instead of W120,000. On a down note, however, I did have to pay yet another W30,000 to the officer. For what, I have no idea. But no matter: all that was left was the cleanup. The officer clicked and clacked on his keyboard, stamped my documents (many of which he wrote on with a pencil—including Mom's death certificate and my very own birth certificate, neither of which I expect to ever see again), and finally told me I was done. I left Immigration at 10:30AM on the nose. Almost exactly one hour had passed.
I walked out the door of the building's ground floor feeling both elated and sad. All that had happened was thanks to Mom: her heritage was paving the way for this privilege. Her death certificate had played, I'm convinced, a crucial role in aiding the processing of all that paperwork. Successfully applying for the F-4 felt like Mom's final gift, and as happened when I turned 40, the event was a mixture of celebration and somberness. Mom hadn't stopped giving, and I haven't stopped being thankful for her.
Being near Hwajeong Station, I strolled across the way to a local E-Mart to purchase some household items. Didn't find everything I wanted, but I got a new fitted sheet for my queen-size bed (a bed that had been purchased by the Golden Goose expressly for me, and it's quite nice, I must say), an extra wastebasket, and a soap dish for use in the bathroom. I trundled all the way back from Goyang to my apartment, dropped off my wares, then headed right back out to meet A Certain Lady* for lunch at Everest. We sat next to a group of foreign Buddhist monks dressed in Korean garb; they spoke Korean, well and poorly, with a lady who might have been some sort of guide, liaison, or coordinator. I ordered the same chicken masala that I'd had last time; ACL got the mutton masala. Everest was out of samosas when we got there for our 2:30PM lunch. That was disappointing; I imagine the samosas sell out fast, especially considering how cheap they are. ACL also presented me with some surprise gifts: a lovely blueberry-cream cake, a box of peppermint tea, and a very nice tea mug to go with it.
After lunch, ACL helped me shop around in the Dongdaemun district for a blanket. I told her my color preferences: dark blue, dark gray, black—you know, serious colors. Georgetown colors. We had a hell of a time trying to find a seller who actually had anything like what I wanted. In the end, I had to settle for a patterned blanket that was mostly dark blue, but that was also shot through with white. Ah, well. ACL got me a discount, too: the tagged price was W64,000, but all she had to do was bat her lashes, and the price went down to W55,000—a discount I could never have managed on my own, as ACL herself archly noted.
So I start work in the morning—full-time, now—at the Golden Goose. At present, the plan is to tough it out for maybe three years—the time it'll take to get out of debt. My budget's a bit wobbly: I'm no longer sure I can be totally debt-free by age 50, but I think I might still be able to make that goal. Just barely. It's possible.
Life is looking up. I'm 46, now, and the future looks okay.
*I think I'll refer to her as ACL for the time being. Since ACL is also an abbreviation for anterior cruciate ligament, one of the important structures inside the human knee, I might also just call her Ligament.