from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #27: On Solitude

with 2 comments

The Lunar New Year holiday is over and now all is well. I went down to Jeonju on Tuesday just before lunch, loading my newly-acquired, previously-owned hatchback with snacks and drinks, relations (my younger brother and two cousins), and a full tank of gas and hitting the road and making the slow crawl to Jeolla province.

3.45 million cars on the highways throughout the holiday period, according to the Chosun Ilbo. Three and a half million cars every day in an area roughly the size of Indiana. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the Gyeongbu Expressway and watching the express buses flying by in the dedicated lane, I wondered if it was such a good idea to drive this year. But who am I kidding? There’s just something about being in control of your own fate, even if it means you’re making the wrong decision.

Image taken from some news source, Yonhap News apparently

I had planned to leave on Thursday morning, earlier if possible to avoid traffic, but the problem was that this year Mom was there. When it was just my relatives, I would come down for a night and then make up some bullshit excuse to leave early. Not that I don’t enjoy spending time with family and relatives, but there isn’t really much to do except for eating, watching endless holiday specials on television, and playing go-stop for small change. Not much different from my own life in Seoul but, again, it’s not home. There’s more food, a bigger TV with a larger selection of channels, and smiling faces, but I just can’t get comfortable there.

If man is a social animal, then what am I? Surrounded by people who love me or at least put up with me, all I could think about is getting my ass back home. Mom asked me to stay another day so that we could go see my aunt whom I haven’t seen for twenty-five years and her kids, whom I’ve never met, and my gut reaction was to get fussy and give her shit about it. I wanted to see my aunt whom I haven’t seen for twenty-five years and her kids, whom I’ve never met, but all I could think about was going home and sleeping in my own bed and shitting on my own toilet.

My aunt whom I haven’t met for twenty-five years has five kids, aged from ten to twenty, and those kids are cute as hell, cute as buttons, and damn smart, smarter than I’ll ever be. The youngest, Sook-ji, beat me at five-in-a-row three times in a row before I surrendered. “Give this old man a break, Sook-ji.” “No. Loser goes first.” She wanted to keep going because she thought I was taking it easy on her because she’s less than a third of my age. I wasn’t.

As hard as it was to look into their little bespectacled, glimmering eyes and tell them I couldn’t stay the night, I left after dinner and made the last leg of the trip in the dark with the window down, smoke trailing out the window and whipping out around the driver’s side. I got home, took a shit and shower, shaved, and then headed out to Gangnam to drink and put myself in another situation from which I wanted to escape.

My apartment is tiny by American standards but it and the surrounding three kilometer radius are the whole of my world, and I am Atlas. The farther I stray from my world, the weaker I become. I need to recharge. Take me away from my world and you can literally see me become weaker, the color and vigor draining from my face by the hour. If I get too weak, all you have to do is drag me back to my Fortress of Solitude and I’ll be fine.

Image taken from somewhere on the Internet, some place called Technovelgy

In college, my friends called this “needing ‘loner-time.’” I prefer being alone. But there is a huge difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is a negative feeling, a frustration that comes from the desire to be with people but being unable to be with them. I rarely feel lonely but I often feel uncomfortable in social situations. I prefer solitude. For me, solitude is freedom, freedom to do whatever I want without the encumbrance of considering others and their emotions and expectations.

While I was in Jeonju, an acquaintance commented that I’ve become accustomed to being alone. The thing is, I don’t know if it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. I sometimes wonder if this inclination toward solitude is a result of my experience in the Army or something that I’ve always had. I prefer the latter just because I don’t like to think that I gained anything from the Army, good or bad.

I often share that I was alone while in the Army, which is a strange thing to say because it was a two-year period in which I was constantly surrounded by people in close quarters. You wake up together, you eat together, you shower and wash up together, you work together, you train together, you march together, you sleep together. But I was alone. People didn’t talk to me, at first because of the language barrier and later because of the “Leave me alone” stamp on my forehead, and I spent most of my free time studying Korean or reading and writing.

Two years under certain circumstances can have a lasting effect on a person’s life, but I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t the Army. It just made the Army bearable. I was like this in college, I was like this in high school, and I was like this in middle school. Maybe that’s when it started and I can speculate on the reasons but it doesn’t really matter. It’s not something I feel like I need to fix.

Image taken from the Internet, some place called The Dimes

The first book I read on my deployment to Afghanistan was Thoreau’s Walden. In it, he says, “The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off.” Or he can sit around in his boxer-briefs drinking beer and eating uncooked ramen. He can also get a lot of writing done, too.

If there is something that is a result of the Army, it is this need to be surrounded by people who ignore me and don’t give a shit about me in order for me to be productive. It is why I have to come down to a coffee shop to write, even in this bitterest of winters and even when I’m on vacation from work. It’s been a week since I’ve done this and I didn’t get any writing done the whole time even though I didn’t do much of anything else.

Even in the presence of others he was completely alone.
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

One of the next book ideas that I’ve been toying with is related to this topic but I won’t share it because, even though I can’t see how I can get it to work, maybe I’ll have something decent in the future and with the pace at which I work, I can’t have anybody taking it first.

Regardless, happy Lunar New Year to everyone who has taken the time to read this excruciatingly long entry in the era of “TL;DR.”

* On a side note, isn’t it nice how people aren’t talking about the trouble with North Korea these days? Peace on earth and goodwill to men and women. Lunar New Year’s bok (福: blessings, good fortune) to all.


2 Responses

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  1. Is John’s party the drinking you did in Gangnam?


    February 8, 2011 at 9:52 am

    • Nope. I deleted those facebook messages so I completely forgot about his party. Evan just called me out for a drink.


      February 8, 2011 at 5:05 pm

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