Eastern Medicine at a Gangnam Café

I had written this piece for Fulbright Korea’s Infusion (literary magazine) in Spring 2017.
http://infusion.fulbright.or.kr/current-volume-10-2/

I glance at the time on my phone’s lock-screen – 6:52pm – and sigh. The plate is bare before me, freckled with crumbs from the pineapple tart I devoured an hour ago to stave off my hunger. I glance around and see a tall, pretty girl smiling, her grin half-nestled into her palm as she watches what could be a variety show on her phone. Her gold headphones complement her sky blue coat and black stockings, and the scene feels almost like a phone commercial, a sight you just don’t see in the countryside. Sitting in the corner of the café, I can see everything. I notice that it isn’t just this girl, but there are several people sitting alone, reading or browsing their phones. I wonder if this is common in the city, in that odd, hanging space between shopping and waiting for a dinner rendezvous. After all, it was tiring just walking through Gangnam, as not only the buildings but the people themselves conducted a sort of electricity that pulsated through you, a rush of intimate chatters, honking horns, and wafts of street foods like fishcake, all funneled into streets only about three people wide. Cafés like this become, at least for the moment, shrines of serenity. I lazily flicked through a New Yorker article on my phone, trying to force myself to make use of my newfound free time. I had planned to meet a college friend at around 6:30pm, but he was never punctual – unfortunately I was too tired from the bus ride to Seoul to fill the time with more shopping. I glanced out the window down at the street below. Everyone seemed to be in a rush, a happy one at that: it was finally time to unwind and meet friends to celebrate the weekend. A trio of girls walked by in laughter, covering their mouths with the pastel-colored sleeves of their sweaters. A man who had been standing restlessly at the corner was pleasantly surprised by a woman who playfully tackled his back. By the look of her polished business outfit, she seemed to have come straight from work. The street had a reddish glow about it, one of the many passages in the maze of restaurants, bars, and cafés that sprawled beyond the posh, blue lights of the main road. I readjusted myself in my chair, envious of life in the city. Among other things, living in the city meant living in a realm of possibility. The city was a dark sea of atoms pulsating at night, always on the precipice of collision with another, newer element – it was a far cry from the insipid countryside. Even if I didn’t meet anyone new in this ocean of entropy, the very prospect generated within me anticipatory warmth, a premature satisfaction.

실례지만, 면접 시간이 있나요?”

It took me a second to register that he was talking to me. I looked up to see a young man around my age, leaning over on my table, presumably to look less assuming. He had slightly messy curly hair, and wore circular wire frames and a jumper that hung loose around his thin frame – all in all, a typical young Korean man.

아, 사실 전 미국에서 왔어요.”

“Oh, well my English is not so good but we can switch between English and Korean,” he said with a near perfect American accent. “Do you have time?”

I glanced at my phone again: 7:01pm. When I last checked my messages, my friend had said he was just leaving his home for the subway.

“Sure, have a seat. So what’s the question?”

“I’m currently a college student and I research at a Mind Institute nearby. In my spare time I like to survey people and see what they think about their religion and their opinion of…” he paused to find the right words in English, “meditation and looking for calmness of mind.”

“That sounds very interesting and I have some time – the person I’m waiting for is running really late.” Surprisingly the words jumped out more enthusiastically than I had expected. I had spent the past couple of weeks holed up in my countryside town, using the solitude to prepare for an exam I had coming up. Though I like to consider myself sociable, it would seem one could grow rusty even in matters as simple as that of everyday conversation. I placed my phone facedown on the table.

“Oh, but first you said you were from America? Why are you here in Seoul?”

“Actually I’m not from Seoul, I teach down in Jeollabuk-do, near Jeonju. Have you heard of Jeongeup?”

He paused for a moment, mouthing the words to himself. Jeongeup, Jeongeup, Jeongeup.

“No, I don’t think I’ve heard of it… but Jeollabuk-do! That’s very far!” He smiled to assure that he was not trying to be condescending.

“Yeah, I actually took a bus this morning. I’m only here for tonight so I can meet my friend before he goes back to America.”

“Only one night?” he asked, eyes wide in surprise.

“Yeah, but sometimes I come up to Seoul for longer periods of time. I just need to go back to teach.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

He drank some of his tea and then picked up a black, pocket notebook I had not noticed before.

“So what is your religion?” he asked, wasting no time.

“Hmmm…Christian, but I would say I’m in a weird place right now.” I hated the question these days, because words sealed abstract thoughts into declarations. It didn’t help that words sometimes prematurely leaped forth, eager to fit snugly into social context.

“Why would you say that?” He took out a pen in anticipation.

“Well… when I first came to Korea I was a pretty strong Christian, but it’s been hard living down on the countryside and well, you know, a lot of the churches in Korea are a little suspicious.” I hoped the last part wouldn’t offend him.

He laughed. “Definitely, no I understand.” He scribbled a few messy notes in what seemed to be Korean, and read them over. Satisfied, he looked up again and asked, “And how are you doing?”

The question caught me completely off-guard.

“What do you mean how am I doing? Like, in general? Or in my religion?”

“In general, like life in general.”

“I would say these past few weeks have been hard, teaching and whatnot. Actually I haven’t seen many friends these past couple of weeks so it’s been a little lonely, but I’ve also gotten to really focus on myself…” I wondered why I was pouring out so much of myself – normally I would be a little more cautious.

“…I would say in general I’m doing alright.” But even as the words came out I began to reassess them. Was I really doing fine? He nodded and took a few more notes. I noticed that a line marked off my section, the two pages split into quarters, each with its own tangle of Korean characters, lines, and circles.

“Well you look good,” he said, looking up.

“Good?”

“Yeah, I mean, you look happy,” he awkwardly elaborated.

A smile spread across my face like a sigh of relief. Deep down I had been self-conscious of my social skills, and wondered if the rust marks were glaringly obvious.

“So you would say you’re happy, overall. Just out of curiosity, have you ever practiced meditation or anything like that?”

I paused for a moment, reconsidering how much I wanted to share.

“Formally, I did maybe two times with a counselor when I was really stressed out in college. But these days I’ve been looking for more pockets of time to really leave free for a kind of meditation. I’ve been trying to look at my phone less these days.”

“What did you think when you tried it in college?”

“It was really nice, I think people should really try it and not look at it as a strange Buddhist thing.”

As he jotted down some more notes I added, “I think there’s an unnecessary stigma around Eastern medicine… and that kind of relates to why I’ve been a little shaky with my Christian background.”

“Hmm, could you talk a little more about that?”

“So actually I had just traveled to Japan a couple weeks ago, and there I was really impressed by Shintoism. It was never something I had taken seriously before, but when I was actually there and surrounded by all of this beautiful scenery and quietness I couldn’t help but kind of understand why Shintoism exists.” Again, I was surprised at how much I felt I needed to unload – perhaps these experiences yearn to turn into words that declare their existence. I went on: “Actually one of the best memories I have is going to a hot spring up in the mountains of Kyoto. It was outdoors and the snow came down in flurries; until that point I didn’t know snow could fall like that. It was completely silent – so silent I could hear my own heartbeat. My friend broke the silence for a moment and said quietly, ‘They write poetry about this stuff.’”

“Wow, so going to Japan really made you question your Christian background?”

“Kind of. But I think it was more that it made me realize that these Eastern religions aren’t some voodoo but that there really is something to them.”

He had a lot to jot down. As he wrote, I gave him a question: “So where do you study?”

“Korea University,” he replied without looking up. When he did, his face had a nervous expression. It was likely that the prestige of his school had impacted previous interviews. But I had shared quite a bit, and now it was his turn.

“And you just go around asking random people about meditation? Is it for a class?”

“No, I just do it in my free time.”

“In cafés? Isn’t it a little weird to go up to random people?”

He smiled softly, taking a beat to think back on previous interactions.

“I do. At first it was really uncomfortable and lots of people rejected me, but you would be surprised. Once you get past the initial barrier, people really open up.”

It wasn’t hard to imagine him coming up to an older woman reading a magazine alone in the middle of a café, asking that question: How are you doing?

“And what do they usually say?”

“Obviously, there are a lot of Christians in Korea, so some of them don’t want to go further in depth about meditation, but really I’m also just interested in how people live their lives. Are they happy? If not, why? What do they try to do to make themselves happy?”

I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. Here was someone who was entering those spaces, ones that we let close because we lose ourselves in the beauty of romanticized introductions that, if acted upon, would shatter into rocky, awkward introductions. In many ways he started to seem more mature than I was, despite his age.

“Well actually, I’ve got to go now, but would you ever be interested in coming to the institute? I promise it’s not a cult or anything like that.”

“I’m not in Seoul that often, but if I find time I think I’d be interested to see what you do there.” Normally, I would politely refuse any sort of solicitation, but I had few truly Korean friends. “What’s your phone number?”

He typed it into my phone and after exchanging names, I added (Mind) next to his contact information.

“Thanks so much, maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”

“Thanks, you too.”

We shook hands and he departed downstairs, back into the electric crowd of atoms that, despite all of their potential, may collide once and never actually meet again. I looked around. The woman watching her phone had long since left, and most of the seats were replaced by new people. The overall chatter was a bit louder than before – I glanced at my phone: 7:21pm. Though he had only been gone for a few minutes, it almost felt like it had never happened.

“Hey man, long time no see!” A familiar face greeted me and he patted my back. “How’s it going? You want to grab dinner? I bet you’re hungry, sorry I made you wait.”

“No problem, it’s good to see you! But yeah, I’m pretty hungry, let’s go.”

I gathered my belongings, gave him a hug, and we headed downstairs. The air was a little colder than it had been before, and there were more people to maneuver around. A group of five boys slapped each other on the backs as they smoked, laughing at some joke, and I held my breath as we passed by. A couple slowly strolled along, in an entirely different tempo from the energy propelling everyone to their evening arrangements. They held hands and looked at the lights above: the flickering white and blue karaoke signs, the dense, musky yellow that set the backdrop for a bar, and the constant, underlying red that permeated the streets. It was amazing how all of these people, crammed in these narrow alleys, managed to keep moving without running into each other. I felt myself move between people without even thinking – only when I noticed it did it become a little laborious, like when you catch yourself breathing. Suddenly I was no longer at one with the crowd, the sea that continues to push and pull underneath those city lights. For the briefest of moments, I felt an urge within me to pull someone onto the little cement island I found myself washed upon. It seemed as though my interviewer had dissolved into nothing but a single question, one that begged to be spoken, to be released. What if I pulled someone aside, out of the constant lull of the crowds, and asked:

How are you doing? Are you happy?

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