Itaewon, Wednesday night. American friend Henry has aged 15 years in the span of 5. I think this, but refrain from saying it. Why kick a man when he’s already down? I haven’t seen Henry since last summer. Due to a variety of factors that I can only imagine, the most glaring of which being his inability to earn the six figures he was making when they first met, Henry’s K-wife has filed for divorce and he’s been living in a tiny one-room studio provided by his employer for several months now. He sits down and helps himself to beer from the pitcher I’ve ordered. This is the part where I am supposed to tell him that he is wasting his life in Korea, and he is at rock bottom, and it’s time for him to scrape together whatever his wife hasn’t taken, put his brain and his ivy league degree to use and depart from Korea immediately.
I know the “It’s time to leave Korea” speech from memory because other expats give it to me routinely, and in fact I have given this speech to Henry before, several times, over a span of years. It’s time to leave Korea. You’re wasting your talent, you’re going nowhere, your life is whirlpooling round and round the toilet bowl, getting closer to endgame where everything goes black, a kind of rock-bottom social singularity. But it isn’t so simple, and valleys can only exist if peaks do as well. In fact, despite what storytellers would like you to think, nobody starts life on a downward slide. Motion in any direction requires push or pull; energy. You remember that from elementary science class, right? You are where you are as a result of energy expended to move you from one place to another, you didn’t just ‘end up’ here.
Rather than the whirlpool model of expat self-destruction, what more commonly happens is akin to cosmic entropy (now we are in middle school science class). Most expats don’t see the end coming, it merely happens around them without their noticing it. Simple systems start to break down, but it happens slowly. I can actually plot it out in Henry’s case. It started when he lost his job at Lehman Brothers. His wife told him not to worry, and that he’d find another similar job but there was something not quite right about the tone of her voice. Was she saying what she was really thinking?
And then when he couldn’t get another similar job, and started teaching English, more cracks appeared. Over time, he got fewer and fewer home cooked meals, until finally his wife said “You can manage to feed yourself right? I’m so busy.” Meals were prepared for the kids, but not for him. Eventually, almost imperceptibly, his patterns changed and he started to eat exclusively outside of his home. More cracks in the crystal, and the cracks are starting to become visible to others. Fewer visits to the in-laws house, and eventually no visits. He gets home from work and says “Hello” as he walks in the door. There is no answer, and yet his wife and two kids are sitting right there in the living room. They’ve clearly heard his greeting, but why haven’t they responded? Craaaack.
His wife no longer asks where he’s been, if he’s eaten, or what he has been doing. She has her side of the bed and he has his. She doesn’t even bother getting up at the same time as he does anymore. She’s asleep when he leaves and asleep when he gets home most of the time. Does she ever actually not sleep? What’s happening with the kids at school? Nobody tells him. The kids. That’s right, the kids. At first it seemed like such a good idea to have kids. Little beings to love and cherish and grow with and guide. Little versions of him and her; ultimate symbols of their love for one another. Yes, the kids seemed like such a good idea but now they don’t even look up when he walks in the front door. They are sure that he is a disappointment as a father. She’s poisoned them with her brand of bitterness, passive misery stamped on her face at all times. More cracks.
And all of this happens so gradually that he doesn’t seem to notice. Another summer and winter come and go. There are elementary graduations where everyone is smiling and pretending to be happy. There are brief moments when somebody laughs at home, but they catch themselves and quickly shut down. He realizes the pictures of his wife and kids he has in his wallet are over 5 years old, why haven’t they taken more recent photos together? Everyone must be busy, he tells himself. And before you know it, this family man who previously spent every waking moment with his adoring wife and two children is suddenly blessed with all sorts of freedom and free time. In fact, you see him out in pubs drinking alone. He hardly realizes the dramatic change that has occurred because to him everything is static; same job, same hours, coming home at the same time and doing all the same things day in and day out. A minor change here and there, but he doesn’t realize that minor changes only happen for so long before they become large, life-altering changes.
When everything is static and predictable, and any sort of dynamism is absent, then time can only be measured by the wrinkles on your face, or the number of grey hairs on your head. He changed slowly, but his environment, to him, has changed at the speed of light. Just yesterday he was on his honeymoon. Just last week his kids were in diapers. He’s been on the job hunt for a short while, but not long enough to come up with anything. Not long enough? It’s been eight years. The kids aren’t in diapers anymore, one of them, the one he has trouble communicating with, is actually in middle school. Simple systems have collapsed. Entropy. Donald Trump is worth $4 billion dollars. Donald Trump is 69 years old. Henry is 41 years old. Donald Trump would, without even having to think about it, pay his entire $4 billion fortune to be 41 years old again. But he can’t. That energy only moves in one direction. Henry would give everything he had to be back home again with his family, they way it used to be, but everything he has is not enough.
Simple systems can maintain themselves with very little input. Advanced systems require advanced input and advanced participants, but simple systems like marriage or family require simple input, provided all parties are willing to internalize whatever is required of them to maintain the system. When one party stops caring or loses interest, even simple systems collapse. All those times she left the house, she wasn’t actually leaving the house, she was leaving him.
And then came the divorce papers and the “You need to move out now and find your own place”. Yes, you paid for the apartment that you lived in with your family, but no, it’s not yours anymore. She refers to the kids as “my kids” and not “our kids”, the apartment is “my apartment” not “our apartment”. Only then does he realize that the gears aren’t turning anymore and everything has disintegrated. He has lost everything he once had, and all that remains is energy and information, and perhaps little cosmic particles of human affection, if he’s managed to grip them tightly in the palm of his hand for years and years while everything else silently fell apart around him. Perhaps that’s what the picture in his wallet is; the only tiny molecule of human affection that he has managed to hold on to. His entire life fit into a single cardboard box, which for the most part remains fully intact weeks later on the floor of his one-room.
The family picture in his wallet is now over 8 years old. Why does he keep it? Stubborn. Yesterday was his birthday and nobody contacted him. I’m curious; does he finally feel free? Does he even realize what kind of life he was living? Will the “It’s time to leave Korea” speech finally hit home? Henry drains and entire mug of beer. What will he have to say? He suddenly begins to speak. He looks me straight in the face and says “So, I’ve been trying this online dating thing, and you won’t believe….”