Recent Delusions

There are neuroses that can afflict you, when you're in an odd place. Losses of abilities, strange paranoias. You can begin to see yourself as a loose collection of traits, as an archetype, and your world can become something of an experiment that is passing you by as you try desperately to keep up with the new findings entering your sense organs. Desperate generalizations are formed, sometimes very hastily, pieces of knowledge get stuck with you that you aren't sure where they've come from but seem so clear and distinct that when you find out they're nonsense, you don't know what to blame.

But the neuroses are the most interesting. Many times it's the inability to disrupt habits. This summer, my school turned off the power to my bathroom, a little used one in a dark corner of the school. Instead of going to one of the dozen other bathrooms, I decided to shit in the dark for a month. I'm not sure why, except that if I went to another bathroom, I wouldn't be sure always that it would have the few things I had come to know existed here, and therefore to need: toilet paper, a sit-down style toilet, a door, a lock to keep out children. The one time I used another bathroom, I was mobbed and grabbed at while trying to use the urinal, so excited were the kids at the new hairy giant who was pissing right where they themselves pissed. So a lock, certainly, to keep out children, that I knew was here.

Further neuroses start to spring up, secondary ones. Fear that someone might see me going into the dark, powerless bathroom and wonder why, or worse, know why. That someone might ask, bizarrely, which bathroom I was now using and I would have to lie about something so pointless and thereby be found out, not just as someone who shits in the dark, but someone who lies about where they do it.

Along similar lines is the habit of cutting yourself off to experiences which are difficult to maneuver, sometimes only slightly more difficult than the things I might do everyday. Purchasing furniture seems impossible, along with new cookware. A strange gold-colored tin pot has been my only source of boiling water for six months, even though proper pots with normal colors are available to me. There is a dwindling aspect to this as well; grocery shopping has become fewer and fewer items every time something strange happens, like a three-person brigade being dispatched to bring me the free supplementary item, the "service" that I was too illiterate to realize went with my noodles, or an embarrassingly thorough apology for the item that was prematurely marked as on sale. Mushrooms and onions have never given me these problems, so I purchase mushrooms and onions.

A converse to this rule is that places where I have already been ludicrous or incompetent are preferred to similar or identical places where I am an unknown. There is a kimbap shop around the corner from my school, a thousand won for a roll of rice and vegetables wrapped in seaweed. My first go led to my accidentally being given an entire sit down meal, just as I was rushing somewhere, and my flustered attempt to pay for it while explaining that I couldn't possibly eat this, but I understood the inconvenience my error had caused. They wouldn't accept my money, and looked at me with exhaustion the next time I came in, frozen near the door. They suggested I sit down, but I pretend not to understand, in case they mistook me again, and stood strangely for several uncomfortable minutes. There is a kimbap shop two or three doors down from this one, where I might have gone the second time, but maybe they have even more difficult procedures or maybe they wouldn't have the experience of my first error and it would all happen again.

More broadly, it is sometimes only small cultural failures which serve to restrict and confine what seems like a possible way of behaving.. In the middle of the Daegu summer, the buses close their windows and air-condition themselves frozen, but I thought of cars, and how it feels to put your arm outside, so that while you sit in traffic, the sun burns down on your skin and hair until you begin to move again and a breeze whips a relief around you that feels artificial and incomplete. I turned the blaring air-conditioner away from me and opened my window, just a crack, just enough to put my arm next to it and feel something. The bus stopped and the driver came to my seat, pointing at the air conditioning, turning it back to my face. "I don't want it on me," I said, a reaction of meaningless English, and pushed it away from my face. He reached across me and closed the window before returning to his seat to turn off the air-conditioning. Was this for my benefit, to allow my comfort above all else? In a sense, of course, but only to make me the target of the angry, sweaty stares. These moments provoke us, the Koreans and I, to fulfill the simple roles placed in front of us, Individual and Collective, me imposing myself on an entire bus for wanting to be different. "What a stupid way to go about this." I was upset, but there was nothing to do, nothing to explain, even if I had a working grasp on Korean to explain myself. It wasn't my language, it was my behavior which was inexplicable and will remain so for the rest of my time here.
More seriously, being a racial minority who is mostly tolerated has dangerous effects on relations with people. Someone shouts something at you, some shopkeeper becomes increasingly uncomfortable that you're sitting in their shop, that it begins to affect the tone of the entire society. Maybe working through average problems would always have been a nightmare, but now the insane results seem suspiciously racial. Soon, every unpleasant event is given a small racial component, a racial possibility that, while tiny in each case, seems overwhelming when it becomes ever present: "That car almost hit me, perhaps because there isn't a strong pedestrian culture here, but maybe it was a lack of concern for the health of white monkeys". Soon, it isn't just unpleasantness, but my own interaction with reality, my own failures get racially coded, so when the woman at the 7/11 doesn't speak English, even though this is the expected and most common result, it seems for a moment that I can see why I've expected this shitty result for so long; she chooses not to speak English, because she thinks I'm a disgusting bearded cockroach.

These walking paranoid fever dreams are scary when they happen, but they have a way of terminating themselves pretty quickly, reaching a level of immorality or illogic that wakes me up, returns me to the floating incompetent feeling.

Sometimes, however, the neuroses metastasize with dangerous and insane results, when these elements combine and stretch into broad, recursive nets of foreigner stimulus. For extreme reactions, there needs to be a careful balance between the following:

  1. Satisfaction with one's self, one's living condition
  2. Strangeness of behaviors, forms, rules and expectations.
  3. Conversely, a closeness with ways of behaving at home, one that is wrong but still keeps a strong hold on the instincts.
  4. Repeated bad encounters, accidents and errors.
  5. Enabling co-conspirators, whose weaknesses either bizarrely match your own, or between you provide a full complement of errors.

If these factors hold true long enough, they will add a sixth, shame, where confronting the problem, asking for help, investigating the conditions, all become impossible and the grid sustains itself, invisible to the agitated observer like a tumor bulging out from under the skin, obviously present, but look, it's the same color as the rest of my body, I'll let it be for now.

And so, this is how we came to live in squalor:

It began the first day, when we were told about the highly complicated Korean recycling program. It didn't seem too complex, they recycle the normal objects, plastic bottles, glass bottles, cans, etc., a few exceptions to the normal objects, a few additions too.

The bags started to pile up. The bins weren't marked, so unless someone had thrown something away already, we would be guessing from one out of twenty. The compost bins were obvious, the smell and rot overflowing, but everything else go put into confused piles and bags and piled in complicated systems. Maybe this bag was mostly garbage, but before the current theory of plastic/garbage integration. Current theories became easier to come by as we stopped taking the garbage out altogether. Our kitchen fell under stacks, of cardboard, pizza boxes, plastic containers. We began to have to maneuver around our garbage, to give in to it. It insisted.

In the more serious case of organic material, we could set it outside the door to rot and after a few days, someone else would take it away. Once I threw it in the woods across the street. Once, the food trap sat for weeks, collecting. Next to the other bags, maybe it was masked, or became empty rotted nutrition-free husks, intimidating me by being so inoffensive, or maybe it was going to be awful and I pretended I could leave it in there forever. When I opened it up, my vomit poured onto the floor and the sink, indistinguishable in smell or texture from the revealed food.

It scattered itself deep around the house. Putting anything into a bag required a recalibration of whatever present state of plastic and paper theory we had reached. Maybe that plastic can sit there for now. If I put it into a bag, odds are I will be wrong, let's wait until we get a day to really sit down and figure these cans out and then I can pick up this small piece of garbage.

For months this continued, plans of midnight runs to the garbage cans always torn apart by the logistics of carrying that many bags, why not take less bags, because this was the grips of madness, a kind of fear-hording. The bags that did find themselves to the garbage were even worse, realizations of how simple it was to get right, confirmation that any error was more and more serious, that twenty or thirty bags of trash and rotten food were going to have to remain inside, the foundation for the future pyramids of garbage. A permanent squalor ensued, salvaged only by long vacations, every woken minute spent out of the house and away from the shifting pit of trash. Is that bag from the first week we moved it, we could ask, and know that it was, or it was identical to another beneath it that was. Is that box from May, it sure is, it's so big, isn't it, it takes up all that space. We have extra space. Don't worry.

Between us, it would have gone on forever. I thought, for a day or so, about diverting the second bedroom into a garbage den. I thought about crying to the garbage man. I thought about dumping it all in the river.

I'm not sure what caused the break, and less sure what caused the return of normalcy. I took the garbage out last week, no less than seven months of papers and dust and and cat litter and hair and piles of flies that had been waiting for an apocalypse and had only died wonderful well-fed lives. It took about an hour. I don't feel any different.

1 comment:

aurelio said...

...your korea is real, it has contained you for a time (you who are uncontainable).