Late Night Drinks with Other Waegs Part 16: Cosmic Entropy

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….”

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23 Responses to Late Night Drinks with Other Waegs Part 16: Cosmic Entropy

  1. beison says:

    This makes me sad to read.

  2. DongDuChoke says:

    Last line had me laughing pretty hard.

  3. brier says:

    Good update on Henry.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You are a good writer, I like reading stuff like this. Intersection of Humanity and Reality.

  5. cmxc says:

    Oh man this post sent shivers up my spine. I’m on my 3rd Korean wife right now, but fortunately it seems the 3rd time is the charm. It certainly helps if you take her out of Korea…

  6. . says:

    Goddamn it Henry… is he still working those suicide hours?

  7. LiftingD says:

    Depressing. Sacrificing your career for family, only to have them lock you out and empty your bank account 8 years later…

    That said wouldn’t wish being a single mom, middle aged, and with two children in South Korea on anyone.

  8. SteveM says:

    The friends who care about you give you the “it’s time” talk. The assholes will tell you to tough it out, or that there’s opportunity around the corner, or that things will be worse for you elsewhere because misery absolutely loves company.

  9. BB8 says:

    Good story, but that story could play out anywhere. It could have been in New York and you’d never know the difference.

    From 6 figure corporate salary to ESL… gawd…. all he needs know to complete the picture is a shady teaching gig in Thailand…

    • SteveM says:

      It could. But it doesn’t with such frequency.

      Korea is the place where dreams go to die.

    • The Baron says:

      Sure, the situation with the family could happen anywhere, but the miserable living conditions in Korea amplify the negatives.

  10. The Baron says:

    “At first it seemed like such a good idea to have kids.”

    Can someone give me a logical reason why you would have children? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as I’m getting older and seeing more and more people making this multi-decade commitment. But I simply cannot think of a reason why (especially as a foreigner in Korean society) I would trade in my social and financial freedoms for years of stress, worry, and financial burden (not to mention it makes the exit strategy that much more difficult).

    I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t want to have children if I were a wealthy man living in a Western country. As a foreigner in urban Korea, regardless of profession? HELL NO. What an awful place to raise a child, especially if they are not of pure hangook blood.

    I get it. Deep inside us is a primitive, biological drive to procreate. But it’s completely illogical. We are not out in the wild picking berries and chucking spears at mammoths anymore. We don’t all need to keep reproducing to ensure the survival of our species. The irony is that overpopulation is what will probably lead to our eventual downfall.

    I get it. It must be incredible to hold your infant child in your arms and know that you’ve created life. And sure they’ll be cute for a couple of years, but those moments are fleeting and minute when considering the overall spectrum of what it is to raise at least one child. To me, the cons just greatly outweigh the pros.

    Every single married-with-children waeg I’ve met in this country has at the very least one thing in common: they are miserable. Stressed, socially unavailable, and seemingly always strapped for cash. My girl and I are planning on getting married within the next year, and luckily for me she is perfectly fine with not having kids.

    • The Expat says:

      Women want children because their friends have children, and having children also adds purpose to a life that is otherwise purposeless and unremarkable.

      Men have children because they are afraid to be forgotten when they die. Egotistical reasons.

      I’d never have kids here because doing so represents the beginning of the end. Economic servitude. Years of stress. Daily discrimination for the kid. Becoming nothing but a walking ATM machine.

      As an investment, children perform poorly. It’s a steep price to pay just because a person is afraid of dying alone. I will say this though; some people are meant to have children. Most of these people are boring, and have nothing going for them otherwise, so for them, the kid actually does make sense, because what else would they spend the money on? Why live? Why work if not for the benefit of someone else?

      The worst is when a person knows they should not have kids, but they give in to pressure and have a kid anyway. A kid that grows up sharing a house with someone who is not interested. A kid who basically serves to represent the selfish needs of one partner, and the stupidity of the other.

    • Johnny Drama says:

      Baron said: My girl and I are planning on getting married within the next year, and luckily for me she is perfectly fine with not having kid.

      JD: Wait and see my fine friend, that may all change soon enough.

      The Expat said: The worst is when a person knows they should not have kids, but they give in to pressure and have a kid anyway. A kid that grows up sharing a house with someone who is not interested. A kid who basically serves to represent the selfish needs of one partner, and the stupidity of the other.

      JD: Who ya talking about Willis? (in Gary Coleman voice)

  11. waygukyoja says:

    Sounds like Henry needs a good boot up the arse. Theres two sides to every story I suppose but the part where you get to the point that you cant communicate with your own child was the most telling part of the story. Kids are nothing but a responsibility. This guy probably isnt even ready for a dog. He should have been the man of the house considering he was the sole provider and that means a lot more than bringing home a paycheck. Instead he passed and let his wife call the shots. Fatal mistake.

  12. Derux says:

    How does one fall from Lehman Brothers to teaching English without hitting a few branches on the way down? Henry is a man of poor choices, or an very unfortunate character in Jake’s mind.

    • Ex-Yonsei says:

      I know an ex-McKinsey and an ex-Goldman who are still jobless after more than 5 years of getting laid off because they are too high and mighty to settle for anything less. These guys currently live off their wives and whatever allowance their family members give them while they work on closing that deal that’ll turn them into millionaires overnight.

      Ever since the Mortgage Crisis, opportunities in finance and consulting have been scarce in Korea any other developed country. Cases in which an ex banker or ex consultant finds a better opportunity or hits a few branches on the way down are few and lucky.

      Instead of seeing Henry as a sinking guy; I see a real man who adjusted to the new reality, and has been doing what’s necessary to provide for his family.

      I bet Henry, hasn’t moved back home to seek for opportunities because there aren’t that many out there as well.

  13. hahnak says:

    wow, this is really good. not exactly happy reading, but i was glad you posted it.

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