Thursday, July 24, 2014

meeting family, knowing lila

I visited my relatives in Karak-dong earlier today. It was a long haul; Karak-dong is in the southeastern part of Seoul, not too far from Jamshil (site of most of the 1988 Olympic events), the Olympic Park, Lotte World amusement park, and the Lotte Hotel and department store. My mother has four cousins, probably all in their 60s and 70s now, who are all married and have kids. So I have a ton of cousins, most of whom live in Korea, but at least one of whom lives in Germany—working for Porsche, as it turns out, and doing very well for himself. Privately, and never to her face, I refer to the ajumma I saw today as Third Ajumma (saejjae-ajumma), because she's the wife of the third-eldest sibling among Mom's four male cousins. I've always gotten along with her best, and she was happy to see me, even giving me an American-style hug when I walked up, sweaty as always, to her apartment. Third Ajumma and her husband are the landlords of their own apartment building, although Third Ajeossi leaves to work at an office away from the apartment now and again. What he does, exactly, has been a mystery to me over all these years, and I've never quite had the nerve to ask him what's up.

Third Ajumma and I talked about Mom; there had been no proper, lengthy conversation about Mom, the problem with Dad, or anything cancer-related since Mom's death in 2009, so a lot of time was spent over lunch just catching up. I talked bitterly about Dad's behavior on the first day that Mom was symptomatic—how he had initially refused to take her to the ER, and how that completely changed my attitude toward him over the course of Mom's consuming illness. I hit on some of the themes that had slipped out in my other blog's narrative—themes like how we show our true colors in a crisis. Third Ajumma cried at times, but this didn't stop her from serving me a hearty lunch of dakdori-tang and banchan. She told me about some conversations she'd had with my Korean aunt in Texas: Mom's big sister, my "imo." That, I must say, was revelatory in terms of the twisted nature of family politics. Apologies if I don't go into what I learned.

I also spoke with my cousin GY, whose brother JY is living in Germany and working for Porsche. GY is a professional singer; as a musician, he has much in common, lifestyle-wise, with my brother Sean. I give GY credit for not being modest as a private teacher: he charges $100-$150 an hour for singing lessons, and has at least ten hours of work per week, i.e., he's earning at least $1000 per week. He told me about a time when he earned over $10,000 in a two-month period; I confessed to him that it was my dream to earn that much.* He also has a small studio of his own, which he manages and pays minimal rent for; he invited me to come use it anytime, free of charge. I'm not sure why he still lives with his parents; he's got the means to live independently. Then again, in Korea, there's nothing like the stigma we have in America regarding being in your 30s and living with your folks. GY's still not married, so from the Korean parental perspective, he's still a kid in need of care and shelter. You don't truly become an adult man until you're married.

GY's studio offer was a nice gesture, although it's doubtful I'll ever find a reason to use that workspace. Third Ajumma also made generous offers of her own: her fifth-floor rooftop apartment (the oksang-cheung), where I stayed for several months in the 1990s, is empty once again, so I've been given leave to stay there for as long as it takes for my situation to stabilize. At least I have somewhere in Seoul to go, then, job or no job. If the latter, I'll at least be free to pile on the private work. That's something, even if it does feel as if I'm reliving my late 20s and early 30s.** But it's a hurtful thought: what have I done with my life? Life should be about ratcheting upward, about progressing, not about stagnation and retrogression.

All too soon, the visit was over. Third Ajumma had a physical-therapy appointment and GY had to go to his studio to meet a friend and do some teaching. GY drove me into downtown, letting me off at Apkujeong Station so I could take Line 3 the rest of the way back to my yeogwan's neighborhood. I was left with much to think about—how my cousins had grown up to become respectable, hardworking people (GY, like his brother, used to live and work in Germany); about how life sometimes moves in frustrating circles instead of moving forward in a linear manner; about the familial bonds of love and support that are, thankfully, in place for those times when we fall; about the sometimes-comical uncertainty of the future. The Hindus call it lila—the divine playfulness of the cosmos, which so rarely bows to our expectations.

*Not because I'm so base as to think that becoming rich is the summum bonum of existence, but because I'm faced with a tsunami of debt. I really have no interest in owning tons of material things or in wielding great power and influence; I simply want to live comfortably, without the Sword of Damocles constantly dangling over my head.

**My buddy Tom had suggested a similar strategy: hang in Korea, fill up on private work until the November/December hiring season, then try the universities again. Winter is the big time to hire because the Korean school year starts in March. I've normally started work in September, which means I've started mid-year, from the Korean academic perspective. In the US, by contrast, September is normally the beginning of the school year.


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