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Culture Shock
by Carolyne Park

It's a hot, muggy day on the island. The kind where no matter where you go -- high or low, inside or outside -- you have that layer of grimy sweat sticking to your skin.

 It's a hot, muggy day on the island. The kind where no matter where you go -- high or low, inside or outside -- you have that layer of grimy sweat sticking to your skin.

I was on a mission, but my mind was distracted. I had just gotten off the phone with my close friend back home. I had needed to talk. An old wound had been reopened that morning. All I did was click on my inbox. It's such a routine act, so mindless and innocent.

I rode down the lime-green elevator with the fluorescent light that's always blinking, making the world feel so oblique and unreal. For the few minutes I spend in that elevator every day, I'm trapped in a bad B-movie. My life is meaningless and there's no hope for a better plot.

There are people waiting there as I step out, but I don't notice. The air outside feels a little better, a little less stale. I head up the hill to the bus stop. Only one bus comes out here.

My friend's having trouble with her boyfriend of four years. She doesn't feel like they have much in common. They don't like to do things together.

This comes as a shock to me. I always saw them as so perfect together. They're always so clever and cool, both with such rich individuality, such spirit. They belong in a cigarette commercial, a whiskey promo, or a hip new TV series on some channel that's not afraid to be different.

When he proposed it sounded like the most perfect moment ever, and not in that "big-diamond, suave, down-on-one-knee" kind of way.

He was petrified, awkward, clumsy and real. Everyone's afraid to be real these days.

After all, hadn't it been four years? Why was she just coming to this realization now?

Everyone's getting hitched these days, taking the leap, tying the knot, strapping on the ball-and-chain. I'm so far away from it that I can't even fathom the thought. My brother's even getting close to popping the question to his long-term girl. He mentioned it last time we talked, and..... wait. Crap! It's my bus.

It seems to move in slow motion, gliding so gracefully down the hill, farther and farther away from me. My mouth opens and my lips make the slow-motion, deep, desperate scream, "NOOOOOO!"

I can't be late today. Not today. I sat around the apartment brooding too long, wondering why it had to hurt so bad after all this time.

The kids will never forgive me if I'm late today. This is their day. I promised. They can be little brats, but I could never resist their bright smiles, priceless laughter and incessant tugging. "Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!"

How can you help but love them?

Snap decision. I'll go the other way. I still might stand a chance, though a slim one. This is going to hurt. I do a 360, and begin to run. Down the hill, past our apartment building, No. 402. No. 402 has 15 floors with 10 exactly identical apartments on each floor, 150 apartments altogether.

No. 402 is one of about 50 identical apartment buildings in our massive complex of concrete, plastic sliding windows and narrow parking lots. And this apartment complex is one of thousands exactly like it across the country. They're great functionally, I suppose, but a little creativity would go a long way.

I make it to the stairs. Geez, I can't believe I'm doing this. It's hopeless, but I start to go down. My roommate counted them once. There are about 187 stairs, and I'm moving at full speed, even swinging over some here and there. Ankles, please don't fail me now.

Are we all supposed to settle down? Have a house, a car, a career. It's such a cliche. Besides, I had all those things... basically. I gave them up. I knew there had to be more. So here I am in the land that you both love and hate. Where the people will nearly dislocate your shoulder when they shove you on the subway, but where they'll offer fruit to a stranger or give you water and show you the way when you're hopelessly lost on the mountain and can't speak the language. Sometimes you don't need words.

The land where the lucky foreign men all get lovin' from gorgeous babes, the likes of which wouldn't give most of them a second glance back home. Meanwhile the foreign women spend a year mastering masturbation. Where the Korean men think you're so pretty, but they'd never, ever have the courage to tell you. Everyone back home said I'd end up totting back a Korean husband. If they only knew how ridiculous that is in hindsight. Or were they just suggesting that I was reaching that age?

Late twenties, hmmm. When does one become a spinster? Thirty? Thirty-five? Surely the age has moved up. Everyone gets married late these days... but most of them at least have something started by now. In this country I'm beyond hope.

I've cleared the steps and my feet are throbbing. The body wasn't meant to go downhill. They always say it's the easiest, but that's a load of crap. If you've done long-distance hiking you know damn well it's the downs that tear you up. I need better shoes.

I pass the playground where the children all stop to stare at the anomaly going by. I don't notice. No time to say "Hello!" ten times, not today.

I'm not ready for marriage. I'm sorry, I'm just not. I came too close that one time and nearly lost myself, and my life -- literally. I can't go back there. No one should ever have to be there in the first place. The couples I know never really seem happy anyhow, especially not the married ones. My friend's husband seemed so perfect when we all hung out at the bar last summer, until he asked me with a sleazy grin if I was attracted to married men. I don't want that. Trust is too hard.

I'm still going down the hill. I can feel more eyes on me. Morbid curiosity? Boredom? I know I look frazzled. The kids will never forgive me. Now HE's getting married. It feels like a knife through the heart, with a quick turn of the wrist just for kicks. I didn't know it would feel like this.

Sure, I left him years ago, or rather, he pushed me away. I wanted to try and work it out, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't so much as lift a finger. So I walked away with all my pride and never let him know that he was the only one I never forgot. He said I had more to do, further to go. He knew I would never be happy settling. He was older. I didn't understand at the time.

Back then I might have stayed, might have lived in that small college town for years and years with only him to love. I believed in it back then. I believed it was possible. He never let on how much he cared. The night he whispered he loved me, I pretended to be asleep.

I round the corner. The heat, the run -- my body's pissed at me. An hour at the gym every day and now this. Real necessity, real desperation. I can't be late. The sweat's in pools now. I see the bus through the gloss over my eyes. It's right there, stopped just across the street. Oh shit, it's moving. I risk it, dart across the street and jump in front of the bus before it can go any further. The bus driver hits the breaks. We exchange a moment, his expression is one of pure surprise and mine is utter determination.

There's the creak. That's what I want to hear. The door is open. I step on-board, slip my coins inside the clear plastic box, say thank you in my best Korean, and begin to stumble clumsily to the back. I look around at all the faces. All curious. I am so different. My skin, my hair, my home, my experiences. I see their faces and it hits me. I have so much to learn.

So here I am. Seven thousand miles away from anything I've ever known. I plop down on the seat, stare out the window and begin to catch my breath. God, this place is beautiful.


July 2, 2004

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