Thor's Korea Diary
@18 February 2002
There was a bang on the apartment door. Very unusual, since I normally live in splendid isolation, five stories up, between the girls toilet (OK until they come home drunk at midnight), and my Indonesian neighbour (OK, unless as sometimes happens, he gets a bit carried away with his prayers). But the knock had happened a couple of times lately, so its signature was also an announcement -- two sharp bangs then a silence, which seemed to say "see. I've tried and failed, but you can't say I didn't try".
As I opened the door he was already retreating. "Ah", he grumbled, shuffling to a halt. "I was going to tell Choi that I'd tried and failed but you know I've got a headache and I feel sick and I ate something last night and somebody made me drink something and my neuralgia is giving me hell and I can feel hay fever or something because is it spring yet and when do classes start anyway".
"Hello Knox, welcome to wonderland. What's news?" I weighed the odds of getting a decodable answer. Pretty slim. Knox was pointing to a tree in the diminishing distance.
"You know how old that tree is? It's all in the branches. See you count down from there (chopping the air), then there (chopping a little lower) and like that and that and that and that and you have the age of the tree."
The blur of grey branches a parachute jump away listened impassively, confident of its anatomy, but probably cursing that with roots under six inches of concrete it couldn't stomp away in a huff. These American tourists thought they knew everything. Hmm. "Uh, Knox, you were after something?"
He slumped against the hallway window. "No I'm not going. Why should I go and I told him that and when do classes start anyway and I don't have a tie but you know I went to one of these things once in the other place and it was a drag. But anyway Choi says you have to be at the ceremony at eleven. Ah I've got a headache but I told you didn't I."
Yes Knox, you told me, and I think I have a headache too. Hell, I didn't even go to my own graduation ceremony. Of all the silly rituals dedicated to the human ego, graduation ceremonies must rate down at the zombie level along with hair perms, politics, and the celebrity interview. Remote in a reluctant corner of my mind though, a small voice said that tolerating this one in Korea might be a smart survival move.
I was early, feeling silly in an unaccustomed suit. The new chamber was almost deserted, its spaces cavernous. There was a parliamentary air about the place, an ambience of crimson and black surrounds, a raised stage of polished wood for the dignitaries, rosettes of red, white and blue draped along the margin of the platform. The audience floor was of pristine white, with neat arcs of white auditorium seating, upholstered in crimson. On three sides of the chamber, perhaps seven or eight meters above the lower floor, was a gallery with extra seating at the back and standing room for the world's press at the sides. This was bordered by a polished steel and wood railing, waist high, with large panels of heavy plate glass between the posts. In short, kings and presidents could come without embarrassment to the college's ambitious investment in new property. Geography itself gave these buildings a special grandeur, for the campus had grown in a narrow valley, high and steep, with its original constructions filling the upper reaches. Now in a bold architectural move, a great bridge of concrete had been thrown across the entire width of the lower valley -- multistories on each wing, and a three story line of windows between, above an enormous campus gateway of marble pillars.
Well, there was no point in being a token foreigner on show until all the pomp and circumstance arrived. I retreated outside into the weak winter sunshine. Two American colleagues had already made the same move, so we stood there in imperial glory at the top of a sweeping flight of plaza steps, surveying the conquered lands, while an occasional graduating student in bat wings and mortar board sidled up to say a polite good bye. The plaza was quite painterly, almost a Renoir. Encapsulated by the bright walls of that great dam of buildings were small clusters of spindly black figures, sprays of flowers, three arches of multicolored balloons in front of a fountain, and several photographer's booths which had magically appeared at the scent of business... The driveway trees, which would be a bower of green in six weeks, still stood with stark webs of twigs pointing at the sky.
We chatted. One was already committed to move to a university 500km to the north; others had vanished a month ago to remake old careers in the fabled West, or headed south across continents to the bars and whorehouses of tropical Bangkok. A handful of new faces would appear within days, their pale visages catapulted into a bewildering north Asian culture. Their senses would be sharp with new experience for a month, they would learn a few funny words, then give up with just the wherewithal to ask the ajossi for a glass of beer. They would stumble into a classroom, uttering in their barbaric tongue, but mostly with no idea of where to begin. Some would find a way to muddle through, and a few would depart cursing. They would, for the convocation of Korean professors now assembling in their academic gowns, merely belong to that revolving blur of itinerant psychotic labourers who happened to speak English and were needed on the advertising posters. Each of us quietly wondered for how many seasons we would stand exhibited in the sunshine on this flight of stairs, before also vanishing like avatars into the warp space of other universes.
It was surprising. Already the appointed hour had passed and there was no sign of the convocation. With a sudden suspicion, we pattered back in through the big glass doors to recheck the assembly chamber. Ah, abracadabra. Mysteriously it was packed. The worthies were assembled in their glory on the lofty platform, and the President was intoning benedictions, or whatever college presidents do at graduation ceremonies. Clearly we had once more reconfirmed our reputations as untrustworthy vagabonds. There was no help for it. A charge to the stage at this point would be as welcome an invasion of Visigoths. "To the gallery", I muttered. We clattered up the stairs. At once I could see that this gallery was a wonderfully civilized innovation. The waxwork figures on their polished stage dare not move a muscle. The credulous flock of graduates in their black gowns below waited, frozen under the gaze of proud parents, to be plucked forth for a moment's recognition. But up here in the clouds there was a steady hum of irrelevant conversation, bodies came and went, shoulders jostled for a peek at the circus, then went outside for a smoke. In short, it was the perfect way to be there without being there.
With mild puzzlement, a wayward Korean professor greeted me. "Not invited?" he asked. Slightly rumpled, in an open neck shirt, he was more of an enigma than we were. At my return question mark, he looked wry. "Declined the invite", he said dryly. An unusually westernised approach... Now the Honorary Doctor was speaking, and we all fell silent. The Honorary Doctor was without question the only seriously important person in our little campus valley. It was her tough business sense which had built the textile empire which built the assembly chamber, built the new buildings, built the old campus, put the worthies on display below, and put me on a plane from Australia fifteen months ago. "What's she saying?", I asked, sotto voce. "Saying?" The Korean glanced sideways at me, as to one who is slightly simple. "She's asking. She wants cash contributions from the alumni to cover this extravagance." Hmm, silly me.
Third off the rhetorical rank came the Wizard. The Wizard, in his grey Buddhist monk's habit, with his solemn shaven head and gravelly voice, is a fixture at all college ceremonies. He is undoubtedly a fine and reverent gentleman, but generations of disreputable foreigners have taken one look and christened (?) him with the epithet, so The Wizard he remains. I did not dare ask what the Wizard was intoning, but it was a fair bet that it had to do with blessings and good fortune for the college's impressive new additions, not to mention prayers for transition from a lowly two-year institution to the coveted status of four-year university. Our futures and our respect, we all understood, turned on this enterprise. We were at a delicate juncture. ... All of which makes what happened next a bit chilling. Maybe the Local Hill God wasn't invited.
On a cold, wet night long ago I was standing amid the looming shadows of a ship repair yard. I was tired, and caked with filthy grease from the bowels of a gaunt cargo ship whose innards we had been extracting on a double work shift. Now above me a dimly seen gantry crane was lifting our handiwork up through the dark hatches of the ship. A nearby tractor would drag the massive machine parts to hangar of sparks and forges and giant lathes. But my job was done. My mind was slipping to rest. So I hardly sensed it coming. Somewhere high on the wire of that gantry crane, a U-bolt suddenly crystallised. Five tons of death, a steel shaft thicker than my body, rushed past my shoulder and crunched into the slimy concrete with a dull whoomp which made me more scared than anything before or since. Sometimes I still wake in fright, and remember that there are moments when Fate makes a very close visit.
I know the sound of breaking glass. This was quite different. Toughened quarter inch plate glass doesn't break. From seven meters up it shears, and slices as it hits the floor with a finger nail-tearing rasp, then a reverberating clang. The awful interruption caught in the back of the Wizard's throat, and choked him to silence. There was a tumultuous, soundless fifteen seconds. The air froze as Fate waited to decide about death; then there came a rush of breath as several hundred people exhaled at once. Death had passed by, miraculously and inexplicably, for the murderous edge of that glass panelling, as it left the gallery railing, had almost nowhere to go down where there wasn't a mortar board and a black gown waiting. Almost nowhere, and it found nowhere.
What happened next was characteristically Korean. Nothing happened. Nothing was seen to have happened. The Wizard resumed in mid-sentence, the wax figures on the stage remained waxed, the graduates remained immobile under the fixed gaze of their parents and friends. Not a glance slid sideways to the dully gleaming sheet of delinquent glass. Later the disreputable foreigners would add it to their jokes, but what Korean could be so insouciant ? No, nothing had happened. Maybe time would help us to forget that anything might have happened, even in a rumour. But it was, we all secretly knew, too late. An icy splinter was lodged into the heart of every alumnus. There had been an Omen.
* Note on personal names: all
names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise. ** Actual names have been used in "The Bright Smile Love Club".