Thor's Korea Diary

Ghost Story

@8 December 2001

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“Korea ... Australia .... like best?” I liked Class Six. They liked me. Last time was the second last lesson, so they had insisted on a cultural excursion to a karaoke bar where I had to pretend to sing the Titanic theme song. This was definitely the last lesson, so it couldn’t possibly be “real work” either. As a compromise they had decided to ask me questions.

“Well”, I scratched my head, “Korea’s OK, but I’m a ghost”. A curly answer. Hurried whispers in Korean went around the room. They seemed to know about ghosts, but teacher-as-ghost was not in the text book. Well, I explained, searching for simple syntax, “you can understand all the signs in the street. Lots of people know you. You can say ‘how’s your hangover?’ ; they can say ‘get lost’. When I walk along the street in Busan, I don’t understand anything. I can’t ask the time; nobody looks at me; nobody says ‘hello’. I walk through the city but it doesn’t touch me. I am a ghost.”

Hmm. This was clearly a new idea to Class Six, and once they grasped it a ripple of pity went from desk to desk. Now ghosts have a certain libertarian freedom, and I’ve been a ghost for so long that the mere thought of sticky domestic human obligations make me go clammy. But when you are twenty and embedded in the Korean social web, well ghostification is too awful to think about. With nobody to call on your cell phone every twenty minutes, the sky would fall in. Not only for a Korean either. Since the sun rose over the Roman empire, and slipped behind the British empire, clawed up the back of Japan’s Greater Co-prosperity Sphere, and burnt the necks of Hollywood heroes red, expatriates have cursed the wretched natives, gone tropo’, and lived in an alcoholic haze -- all from that morbid fear of walking ghostlike down strange streets.

Class Six had a solution. They would declare me human. “She wants to be your girlfriend”, said Crazyboy. Crazyboy was considered a kind of stupid but protected creature. Two weeks before I had dragged him out to the whiteboard, politely asked the class to shutup for five minutes, and given him a private lesson with them all mutely watching as he learned to count to ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million. Poor Crazyboy looked for a desk to hide under, then hid his head under his coat. Coaxed out, refused all “don’t knows”, he finally got it for the first time in 15 years of schooling. The class broke into applause, Crazyboy turned bright pink and floated back to his desk. He had been my devoted follower ever since. Now he was rendering a service.

Little Rat shook her head vigorously, denying Crazyboy’s artless offer, but the body language of Class Six was unmistakable. They too, it seemed, understood and approved that Little Rat wanted to be my girlfriend. To tell the truth, Little Rat was rather attractive. She was as slender as a reed, with golden honey skin, and a certain waspish honesty that was hard to resist. Several classes past, she had let her cool hand rest on mine in an accidental passing, and seemed from that moment to make a decision. The psychology of it baffled me utterly, and not being a predator I remained friendly but passive, wryly wishing that it was not all thirty years too late.

The next question was phony. “How old are you?” They knew that very well. “How old are you?”, I shot back. “Guess”, said Yellowhair cheekily. So I guessed, then had to guess the ages of half a dozen others. “How old is she?”, they said pointing to Little Rat. “Hmm,” I said, “at least 75“. They grinned like conspirators, and Little Rat looked at the floor, clearly pleased.

But this ghost thing, it’s a puzzle. Come to think of it, there’s hardly a city anywhere that is not crowded with ghosts. They wear brand labels to look like members of somewhere, and read newspapers on the train to seem like players in those pseudo communities we call nation states. Catch them quickly out of the corner of your eye though and you can see them blurring around the edges, until like Alice’s Cheshire cat, there’s nothing left but a row of grinning white teeth. Sad brand label ghosts.

In another age, my maternal grandfather was the god fearing, stern headmaster of a tiny Tasmanian village school. On Sundays he moved across to the a little wooden Methodist church to preach about an occasional angel, and the hordes of unrepentant ghostly sinners bubbling away in the cooking pots of hell. The farmers and the small boys with scrubbed knees were properly impressed. They knew they were not ghosts because they knew when grandfather had indigestion, when the White’s cow was going to calve, and when the Featherstone girl ran away to a fate worse than death in the sin pits of Sydney. They therefore had every reason not abandon the care and censure of their neighbours for the ghostly anonymity of exile to hell or a large city.

The one thing, the secret that I couldn’t tell Crazyboy or Little Rat, or any of the others, was that I had always been a ghost, and in a familiar way felt comfortable about it. They would never care to confess that in your home city you could grow up as a spectator rather than a player, that in your father’s house you could trudge through the domestic routines of chores and quarrels about the TV, and the old man coming home drunk and stupid .... without, well, ever feeling part of it. If such a warped refugee from the concrete jungle survived, surely he would be one of those homicidal loners who turn up in the Sunday papers after sprinkling anthrax on people’s sandwiches.

The truth of course is that in zillions of Australian and American suburban back yards, not to mention the sterile apartment blocks of countless Asian cities, you can find bodies plodding through the motions of biological life without any particular attachments, human or otherwise. Some quietly eat themselves to death, some put identikit “romance wanted” ads on Internet matchmaker sites, some buy lottery tickets to an unimagined paradise. Remember, Santa Clause first hit the big time less than a hundred years ago. Why? Untold numbers of kiddy ghosts in cities started writing please-gimme letters to the North Pole. Me? I pig out on all kinds of never-finished fascinating projects, wallow happily in trash-high mountains of useless information, experiment with being baby-helpless as a ghostly foreigner in faraway lands, write bad poems and immortal prose for the life to come .... Heck, being a ghost is not so bad.

The lesson was finished, the term was ended, the year was done. It was late, maybe 10 pm, as Class Six spilled out exuberant onto the cold, dark marble stairway. I was already disappearing out of their lives, into the shadows of the landing above, when I heard a shout. “She’s Leatherman’s boyfriend!”, cried Crazyboy wickedly. Little Rat beat him frantically on the back. “It’s not true! It’s not true!” she wailed.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Ghost Story"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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