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Covid Feuilleton #4
Every man has irresistible desires. For M in Philly, it’s Pat’s cheesesteak, which he ate each day. M also loved petite wives, all five of them, though not enough to stay too long. At Friendly Lounge, our dim dive, it was common knowledge M loved tiny bodies, period, and that’s why he was locked away twice.
Covid stuck in Busan from March to July of 2020, I indulged my Tex-Mex craving just once, at Los Amigos, an hour away from my room via two subways. When I lived in Saigon during 1999-2001, I made several pilgrimages to Tex-Mex, for its hard-shell tacos, cumin flavor and pico de gallo. In San Jose, California maybe a decade ago, I was standing outside a taqueria inhaling a burrito so greedily, some grinning Mexican dude said, “Good, huh?”
“I can show you a better place.”
“No, this is good enough.”
At Los Amigos, my lifelong despair, frustration, resignation, self-pity, lust for revenge and blasphemy were instantly, if only momentarily, forgotten, when I was presented with four boffo beef quesadillas, complete with sour cream, red chile sauce and jalapeno pepper. Thank you, Lord!
Los Amigos’ owner and chef turned out to be a Kuwaiti-American from Los Angeles. Fifty-years-old, Ahmad “Oscar” Mansour was married to a Sakhalin Korean, whom he had met in Seattle, where she studied.
A hundred fifty thousand Koreans were brought to Sakhalin by the Japanese. Nearly a third were stuck there when Soviet Russia took the island at the end of World War II. Their plight was an enormous tragedy lasting decades. By 1960, only a quarter had been granted Soviet citizenship, with the stateless denied many rights in addition to living in a Communist country. Though two-thirds acquired North Korean citizenship, only a fraction managed to move there. In the late 80’s, Sakhalin Koreans were finally allowed to emigrate to South Korea, but not many have done so. Emigration is always a huge challenge. Counting their descendants, 35,000 Sakhalin Koreans remain in Russia.
The biggest historical tragedy among Koreans is the ongoing division between north and south, of course, now nearly 77-years-long. With Covid, people are also prevented from reaching beloved persons and places. Already, billions are ejected into the unknown, and soon enough, this displacement will be literal.
At the far end of Namhae Island, there’s a curious town with German buildings, restaurants and signs. Inhabited by Koreans returned from Germany, it’s a bit phony, to attract tourists, but it’s also very organic, for these Koreans feel most comfortable among each other, marked as they are by their years in Germany, working menial jobs from the 60’s onward. Germanish, they make their own wursts, quaff German beer and eat rather lousy sauerkraut, just as my three decades in the US leave me with a regular hankering for an honest cheeseburger, and also Tex-Mex, where I can find it. American enough, I prefer Tex-Mex over Mexican, naturally, which I’ve had plenty of in Meh Hee Koh.
At my ominously named Busan guesthouse, One Way, we were just fluke refugees from what we thought would be a passing storm, but as the weeks dragged on, we started to wonder. Twice I had to go to immigration to extend my visa, but the office happened to be nearby, and the process was extremely quick and efficient, Korean style. Any time you have to appeal to a bureaucrat to be allowed to breathe, eat and shop somewhere, there is stress, however.
At One Way, there was a Spaniard of about 50 waiting to return to his Thailand home. Leaving without saying goodbye, Pablo left behind, on the guesthouse’s negligible book rack, a hard cover copy of Borges’ Historia universal de la infamia. With much enthusiasm, I recommended it to Gustavo, a Brazilian who spoke Spanish, English and Korean, but he wasn’t interested. Like several other young people there, Gustavo exchanged labor for room and board, though the eating wasn’t so great, he moaned, for he was losing weight.
Though I rarely listened to recorded music, I couldn’t escape a song by (G)I-DLE during my five months in South Korea. Sung and rapped by five sultry babes, it swarmed over me in countless cafes. As has been pointed out, Satanic themes are often woven into the videos of top music acts, so in this celebration of lesbianism, apparently the first in K-pop, we have a church to hedonism and self-worship, sex as a mud-kneaded-with-blood descent into hell but celebrated as an ecstatic ascent into heaven, a white thus cleansed or whitewashed forbidden fruit, sexlessness as being fenced with barbed wire, day-to-day living as being casually dragged by thugs, a finger to the temple mimicking suicide because it’s cool and kinda fun, masked thus faceless humanity to highlight one’s supposed stardom, the Sacrament as intoxication and death, climax or fulfillment as arriving, at last, at a cemetery with many white crosses. For the record, I have nothing against lesbians. I’m just pointing out how lesbianism is depicted here as an extremely dark religious experience, in a song called, what else, “Oh my God!”
From Busan, I took buses or trains to dozens of towns and cities, and everywhere, there was the same well-organized, pleasant society, with all your needs within easy reach, but this was only South Korea on the surface. In 2019, thus before Covid, the top five countries for suicide per capita were Lesotho, Guyana, Eswatini, South Korea and Kiribati. All but one could blame poverty as a key factor.
When not drinking themselves stupid or committing suicide, many South Koreans check into a prison themed hotel, where, deprived of nearly everything, and fed miserly, meatless meals, they can feel more relaxed and free, at $90 per night.
Since the pre-Covid world was clearly out of whack, many people actually welcomed the violent pause brought about by lockdowns, but listen, this Reset is not designed to simplify your life and recharge your spirit, Zen style.
Since there’s a million idiots born each second, feel free to believe, “You will own nothing, and you will be happy.” At least they ain’t lying entirely.
[to be continued, of course and unfortunately]