When I first started writing this post, I was sitting in a street-side coffee and gelato cafe called Coffee Namu & Zzoo. Don’t ask me what that means: I’ve no idea what or who “Zzoo” is and why he/she/it bears standing equal enough with Namu to warrant deployment of the ampersand. Although it’s probably just two Korean words written phonetically in Roman letters, it’s possible that whichever Korean came up with the name thought it meant something cool and trendy in English. Using English in the names of businesses or cafes and writing English phrases on the walls in fancy letters is a thing here, sort of like how we sometimes do with French or Italian or Spanish. Examples: a quick mart wittily called “Buy & Bye,” a shoe store almost-cleverly dubbed “O My Sole,” and a bank unfortunately named “WooriBank.” They seem to think it adds an exotic and cosmopolitan flair to a venue, except of course when it’s less English and more Konglish. For example: “Sometimes, fall in love when two people meat in the night \ I asked for her relationship and she asked me her accommodation.” It makes me wonder how often something similar happens when an Irish-American pizzeria proprietor pastes an Italian phrase in Vivaldi font above his cafe’s double glass doors. It’s okay though, Koreans. A lot of Americans can’t speak English very well either, and they’re supposedly native speakers.
Anyway, I was sitting at Coffee Namu & Zzoo because I’d accidentally stranded myself in Chilgok, the smaller city just north of Daegu that I’m increasingly finding is cool in its own right. The owners of this cafe pride themselves on the number of foreigners who come to their shop, as well they should. Coffee is still a relatively new fad in Korea and not all of the many shops and cafe chains that have sprung up to meet the demand actually make it well. This joint, however, makes a very good cup, and Roy-Gene approves.
I love my ability to write two whole paragraphs and still not arrive at my point–I hope you do, too. Or, at least that you don’t mind it. Anyway, I was stranded because I’d missed the shuttle back to the Village by about five minutes. I’d missed the shuttle by about five minutes because I’d overestimated my ability to walk the mile and a half to HomePlus and buy coffee (Am I noticing a pattern here?…) and walk back to the shuttle stop in the limited time I had. Sure, I could’ve taken a cab back from HomePlus and almost certainly made it in time, but getting in a cab here is an inescapably nerve-wracking experience for me. I’m always afraid that I’m going to accidentally tell the cab driver something in my haphazard and shaky Korean that sounds like where I need to go but is actually far, far away from there. Even when I succeed and the driver says, “Ahhhh, ne, ne,” (“ne” is how they say, “yes”) I’m still always nervous that he thinks he understands what I’m saying but really doesn’t and is headed for Busan. As a result, I try to avoid taking a cab by myself unless it’s desperately down-to-the-wire. Since I was then currently broke, I couldn’t afford a cab ride back to the Village from Chilgok and had to wait five hours for the next shuttle. It was ultimately okay though as it gave me occasion to put into words some things I’ve been thinking about lately.
I decided a couple of weeks ago that I don’t want to stay in Korea beyond the end of my teaching contract next February. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but don’t count on it: I don’t do that very often. When I first came here, I thought I might want to stay for two, maybe three years. The basis of that desire was primarily financial. Even if I didn’t stay at the English camp, I could still work at a hagwon or in the EPIK program and make a lot of money. But, no matter. It’s not that I don’t like Korea, it’s that I don’t love it. The culture is interesting, but it’s not one within which I’ll ever feel at home. The people are nice, but they seem to always hold you at a distance, with most cross-cultural relationships effectively little more than transactional (i.e., “Teach me English and I’ll teach you Korean.”) Maybe this puts a dent in my cosmopolitan street cred, but I’m not really interested in learning Korean. Even before I came here, I wasn’t super enthusiastic about it and, since coming, that enthusiasm hasn’t increased an inkling. It’s an extraordinarily difficult language for non-native speakers to acquire (18 different vowel sounds, some of which resemble demonic utterances to my ears) and, since it’s a language only spoken by a specific ethnic group whose members don’t immigrate very often, one I’d likely never use after leaving Korea. Sure, that’s no reason to not at least try for experience’s sake, but, I don’t know… I just don’t wanna. So sue me.
I’m actually glad I was able to decide early on that one year is enough. That means I’ve 7 1/2 months to chart my next course. I was having a conversation one night this week with a coworker about the fact that many of my generation (myself included) have difficulty deciding what we want to do with our lives as virtually endless choice and opportunity is both a blessing and a curse. I recall when my grandmother was having her current home built that anytime a decision had to be made on the color of tiles, the type of lighting fixtures, or the shape of door handles, she’d say, “Just bring me three different choices. Any more than that, and I’ll never make a decision.” I wouldn’t trade the vast array of opportunities available to me for a mere three, but, on some days, the idea of limited choice feels enticing. In the end, don’t caged birds sing just as sweetly as those free to fly into whatever dangers they please? Plus, there aren’t any hawks or hurricanes to dodge when you’re in a cage. Maybe we could just give cages a less negative sounding name (like “saferoom,” or something) and they’d sound more enticing? I don’t know, just a thought.
One thing limited choice does provide is perhaps a stronger psychological justification for negative outcomes. When our choices are limited and the road we took turned out to be less than what we’d hoped for, maybe we feel afforded a right to say, “Well, I didn’t have much to choose from anyway.” Fear of failure (or just of the unknown) is powerful and has led to a lot of people leading lives they really don’t enjoy because they didn’t take that one big leap all those years ago and, instead, settled for something familiar, safe. Granted, boundless opportunity–or at least the illusion of it–is part and parcel of the Twenty-first Century zeitgeist. People living in generations past by default often had only one track for their lives to follow and ambivalent as my feelings about global capitalism and the technological revolution may be, I am very much a product of it and owe to it a certain debt of gratitude. So, there’s that on my conscience. Furthermore, what does and does not constitute a cage is obviously different from one person to the next. For example, a significant number of my college classmates are either now married or in the process of becoming married. Personally, I can’t think of anything else I want less at this stage in my life than to be married–convenient, because it’s currently illegal in most of my home country for me to get married. I did go to a conservative Christian school and there’s significant cultural pressure on people to get married there, but my hope is that these people are getting married because they truly love each other and not because they feel they need to–or just because they want to have sex. Young people who grew up abstinent youth groupies will sometimes do that, with disastrous consequences.
I don’t want to talk too much about my plans for the future just yet as they’re still quite nebulous. I’m aware that the longer I drive around without a map, the more likely I am to get lost, and that, at some point, I’ll have to pick a road and take it. I also know, at some other point, the desire to settle down somewhere will reach a steady burn at the base of my soul. At yet another point, my priority will become finding–or allowing myself to be found by–someone special and significant to do life with because, in my opinion at least, an integral part of life is sharing it with someone you love. Until then, I have to keep arriving at forks and making decisions about which way to go. One thing I can say with absolute certitude is that Robert Frost was
probably definitely bullshitting when he wrote that poem: there are never just two roads that diverge in a wood. Maybe some people only choose to see two, but, trust me, two doesn’t even scratch the surface. Regardless, we can neither take them all nor remain at the crossroads indefinitely. Sooner or later, under our own force of will or something else’s, we must choose and hope that what lies around the bend is something toward which we can run with confidence and zeal.
I often wonder whether or not I’ve done the right things. Not that anything could be done to alter the past, but I worry whether I’ve trumpeted the right creeds or offered up the right prayers. I worry whether I’ve done right by certain people and whether I could have done better. I worry whether I should care. I’m sometimes wracked with intense emotion at the thought of losing, to whatever circumstance, certain people who are immensely important to me and then feel intensely guilty that I feel that way about some people and not others. I don’t know why any of this is and maybe I just need to see a shrink, but I still cling to something I’ve long believed, which is that these things, while never pleasant, are simply part of the human condition. Can I just be honest though? I’ve often believed that less out of a certainty of its truth than of a hope of it–sometimes a desperate one. Again, let’s keep shit real. We wouldn’t have to continually convince ourselves we aren’t alone if it weren’t such a believable lie in the first place.
It’s unceasingly comical to me how often that poem finds its way into the tail ends of commencement speeches and onto the backs of wedding invitations. I think–no, I know people read the last stanza and assume the presence of a qualifier that just isn’t there.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
To the observant eye, that can be interpreted in–ironically–two ways. Either the difference made was good or it was bad. Our culture romanticizes the “road less traveled,” and assumes that the adventure of taking it is automatically better than taking the one with the comfortably trodden footholds. Maybe not, though. Maybe the road less traveled is less traveled for a good reason. Maybe it’s bisected by a fordless torrent three miles hence and the sign warning as much has become shrouded in the undergrowth. Maybe both paths lead to the same destination, only the one less traveled takes you along a rocky outcropping infested with serpents. You don’t know, and neither do I. Even now, I marvel at the agility and poise with which I have so often taken “the one less traveled by.” It’s just not ever been something I’ve shied away from, and it kind of scares me. I still worry that choosing to earn a degree from Oral Roberts was the right decision. I still worry that choosing to accept, rather than fight or suppress, my sexual orientation has forever precluded the possibility of having a family of my own. I still worry that abandoning a career search in the U.S. to work in South Korea for a year has forever doomed me to wander in the doldrums. Don’t begrudge me my honesty; I may look like I have all my shit together, but mine is just as messy and chaotic as yours. Every move I make is a gamble too. Foolishly or not though, I still cling to the hope that one day far from now, old, wrinkled, and held securely in the arms of the man I love, I’ll say with contentment, “It did make all the difference, and the difference was good.”