As I slowly pull up the driveway of a five star international hotel which I won’t name, I am greeted by a sight that boggles the mind. I creep up towards the valet curb, slip my sunglasses over my forehead and rub my eyes before taking a second look. There, standing among of a crowd of tourists, moneyed up Korean layabouts, and various airline employees, is American friend Henry. And he is not alone. He is flanked on the left by the largest Korean security guard I’ve ever seen in my life. On his opposite side, there is an ajumma. Wait, I need to rub my eyes again and squint to confirm that I am not hallucinating -no, to his right stands an ajumma, approximately 4 feet tall, late 40′s or early 50′s, scandelously dressed, with her arms locked around Henry’s left elbow in an iron grip. Henry is holding his shoes out in front of him, and is standing barefoot at the curb.
A valet attendant approaches but I hit the button activating my hazard lights, open my door and wave him off. It is only when I reach the curious threesome that the security guard, who must be at least seven feet tall, releases Henry’s arm as if transferring custody to me. Henry’s shoes, pants and shirt are dripping wet, but his jacket is miraculously dry. It is a late Tuesday afternoon and as I look around and realize that everyone is staring at us, I lower my sunglasses back down to obscure my face. I can’t afford the guilt by association, because this is the same hotel from which I usually steal my morning copy of the Wallstreet Journal while pretending to order overpriced coffee from the overpriced cafe. Among the crowd, a distinguished looking Middle Eastern man in a pilot’s uniform appraises us and gives a look that can only be interpreted as disapproval.
As I guide Henry towards the car, a strong aroma of alcohol and chlorine wafts from his person and nearly overpowers me. The call came about an hour earlier, and Henry is still reasonably trashed. He is putting on a good show of faux sobriety while somehow managing to remain vertical despite ingesting what I can only assume was a generous amount of liquor. The ajumma -whom upon closer inspection, must be 50-60 years old, and who also looks like a retired whore- refuses to let go of Henry’s arm. She assumes that wherever we are going, she is also going. I look at the security guard, whom in the interest of avoiding another “scene” gently coaxes the ajumma from Henry’s arm so that we can make a hasty exit from the valet zone.
Henry is wearing a pair of white Fendi sunglasses. They are women’s sunglasses in the style of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I pull back over to the curb and hit my hazard lights. “Where did you get those sunglasses? Who do they belong to?” He responds, “They’re mine man, don’t worry, don’t worry, just drive!” I look in the rear view mirror and there are now two women standing with the giant Korean security guard, pointing in our direction. I remove the sunglasses from Henry’s head, exit my vehicle for the second time, and jog back to the security guard, handing over the sunglasses, bowing and apologizing in Korean.
I roll down the windows and the rest of the trip to Samseong-dong is silent. I choose Samseong-dong because I know of a cafe there with parking directly in front, where I can drink coffee, wait for Henry to sober up, and keep an eye on my car at the same time. We grab an outside table and I order two Americanos. “So, you decided to take a swim huh?” I say, stating the obvious. “It was hot outside. I just wanted to dip my feet in.” This doesn’t explain why Henry is soaked from head to toe, and I can only guess that shortly after his “swim”, security was dispatched to pull him out of the pool and remove him from the property as discretely as possible. “And that ajumma. What………the fuck is…..wrong with you?”
Henry explains, “Oh man, she was buying me drink after drink, man. That lady loves to party! She said she was an artist or something, maybe a painter.” This is funny, because it didn’t seem to me like the ajumma spoke a word of English, and Henry’s Korean ability, despite him having been here longer than myself, is questionable at best. Henry removes a soaked pack of Marlboros from his pants pocket, takes out a single cigarette and tries to light it. The waterlogged cigarette has no intention of submitting to this lighter, and so Henry stands up and announces that he is going out to find a convenience store. He squishes down the sidewalk in his drenched shoes.
I take a large swig of black coffee and slowly lean back in my chair, arching my head back so that I can see the evening sky. This is kind of an involuntary physical reaction that I have to stressful situations. As I stare up at the polluted sky, it occurs to me that most of my friends are straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel. What is it about expat life that so profoundly changes some people? What is it about this place that makes people self-destruct, or sabotage themselves? A young Korean couple sits at the table across from me. The boyfriend has a DSLR camera. He has been taking pictures of his girlfriend ever since they arrived. 20 minutes later, he is still taking pictures. For some reason I begin to get irritated by this, and after 40 minutes have passed and the sound of the shutter has not ceased, I feel like shouting.
How many fucking pictures does this guy need of his girlfriend, and is no one else bothered by this? It is a public display of attention and love. For some reason, watching this display makes me feel slightly more advanced, socially. I would never behave in such an idiotic fashion. I’d never torture some poor girl by forcing her to pose for so many pictures. I’d never be so needy as to carry a fucking camera with me everywhere I went. As if the memories will evaporate if you don’t eternally preserve them in digital files. It’s a fucking cafe, not a wedding photo studio. The girl seems nice, and cute, and interested, and polite. Why is this guy wasting her time with his compulsive picture taking? Like, she’s going to vanish at any moment and all he will have left are his stupid photos. I don’t get it. I don’t understand these people. How many pictures is he going to take? Five hundred? A thousand? I keep my mouth shut.
I remember my first girlfriend at age sixteen. Beautiful, tall, thin, popular, deep summer tan, with long blonde hair. We’d spend our summer at the beach. We’d go to the movies. We’d get ice-cream. We’d go shopping. I’d skateboard with my friends, and she’d sit and watch with her friends. We’d have lunch. We’d walk on the beach. We’d lay on the sand and talk for hours. I was so mesmerized by her that nothing else in life really mattered.
I was too stupid to carry around a camera at the time. I would have taken a million god damned pictures of her.
Henry comes back with a pack of new cigarettes and seems to have reasonably sobered up. I don’t have much to say because Henry has more recently become one of those people who only contacts you when they want or need something from you. Once these expats run out of bridges to burn, they usually self-destruct quietly, and alone. This is one of the reasons that I tend to keep other expats at an arm’s length. Living as an expat long-term in Korea is somewhat like camping out next to the railroad tracks and watching train wrecks. And if you miss the most recent train wreck don’t worry; there’ll be another. Oh yeah, and the odds are in your favor that you will be personally involved in some of the train wrecks. The higher your income, the greater your opportunity to become involved in more spectacular and varied disasters. Exciting, right?
For more than a few expats, the measurement of one’s current situation is a reflection of how screwed up you are in comparison with the other expats around you and in your peer group. And since there are countless levels of “screwed up”, it’s quite possible to convince yourself that you are “normal” no matter how far you slip down the slope. In my case, there is some evidence that I am not normal. Does this bother me? Not really. Though I hope that when I start diving into hotel swimming pools fully clothed, somebody stages an intervention.