Relishing Narcissus in South Korea
Where do I go this weekend? I have made it through the week, once more only through terrible neglect of the soul – an exile from my freedom. It’s Saturday morning in South Korea.
As soon as I leave school I am a bird – liberated from social confinement. I jump on the bus. I am meeting Jonny, another teacher, living elsewhere in Korea. He’s from Northern Ireland.
I stretch out on my cotton wool armchair. Korean buses are beds on wheels. I listen to music, watch the passengers, take in the view outside. This is bliss. I am the only Westerner travelling today as always, but whereas during the week I am detached, now I feel I belong. My weariness of heightened cynicism is replaced by a tempered tranquillity. Unhurriedly gliding by, a mountain looms over a flooded paddy field.
I pass pagodas, dried up rivers, template towns, smashed up cars, and pervading all, mountains, neither lush nor barren, and fields waterlogged in spring. This country, the Hermit Kingdom is a forgotten nirvana. Up here, below the trees, are temples and hermitages and monks; I could run outside and climb and disappear forever, taken in by the trees and the monks, fed and nurtured, my body lost to civilisation, my spirit found by renunciation. The service stop approaches. I think of coffee and a cigarette. With amazing fluidity, the bus turns off the motorway, enters the service area and parks. I start for the toilet still preoccupied with my serenity.
To me this is what experiencing a foreign culture is all about. I have done nothing uniquely Korean on my journey, but my self-assurance is sufficient.
Over a coffee and a smoke I watch the clouds intermittently reveal a majestic mountain surveying all. It is me. Today, I am a narcissist. The bus pulls out of the rest area and I, we, are back on the road. I listen to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine in expectation of tonight’s hedonism. The speed of the bus and the smoothness of the road work in harmony with the music. There is one direction and I am floating on an irrevocable stream.
Why does it all affect me so? It is only a three hour bus ride to meet a friend. I must have sunk so low during my weekdays – I am dimly aware of this.
It is here I wish to dwell forever more. Do I hear monks high up in the hills in a perpetual state of comic relief? I imagine I do. Passing over a river, I notice its banks are an ugly brown, still showing from the dry winter that has departed. Just as laughter washes away my troubles, so the monsoons will erase all trace of this blemish and restore nature’s beauty. In summer, the mountains and the rivers reign supreme; all else takes a back seat. I may have to endure seasons of discontent, but the weekend is my summer, and I have banished my demons.
We are nearing our destination. It is in a valley surrounded by mountains. The road spirals down from its high altitude right into the downtown area. As the bus winds down, my thoughts gradually leave me, flushed away to subterranean depths for another three weeks. Reality returns. Inside a continuous current of anticipation remains. Jonny is here. And I have already met him.
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