from the Korean Army to being published

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

Entry #29: Another Introduction Draft

with 2 comments

I said I’d post a new draft in Feburary, but I’ve never been good with deadlines and I went out on a bender last night in Hongdae with some graduate school buddies because today is a “red day” in Korea in commemoration of the March 1st Movement. Beer and pitchers of Long Island Iced Tea are not good for the body or soul.

So here’s the most recent draft of the introduction. Those of you who have read the previous drafts will notice large sections which are essentially the same as in those previous drafts. This is what I’ve been doing this month. Trying to re-write the whole manuscript but, in the end, only changing small sections.  

1. Introduction: To the End of Nightmares

“History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
– Ulysses, James Joyce

When you’re young, you have nightmares about things that don’t exist or will never happen, ghosts and aliens and the boogeyman. I once had a nightmare in which the devil was chasing me as we swung from an endless line of telephone poles like monkeys, nothing below us but the vast, red expanse of hell. I was seven. Once you grow up, you have nightmares about real life because eventually you learn that real life is scary enough without having to imagine.

It’s been over five years since the events in this book took place and I still have recurring nightmares. Time may heal all wounds but what if the result of a real-life experience was not so much a wound as a now-existing condition, an affliction, a full-blown disorder?

The last nightmare I had begins in a dark, concrete stairwell. The kind of stairwell I imagine you could find only in the slums, in an area reeking of neglect and abandon, stale urine. It’s crumbling and dank and menacing and voracious. Voracious in the way it swallows all traces of light, creating a darkness that is thick and impermeable, almost tangible. Of course, there is a little light—a dream is not a dream when there are no images—but it is a small window of muted brightness directly in front of me that rocks from side to side with each careful, ascending step, as if a 30-watt light bulb hangs from some strange contraption attached to the top of my head. I tend not to experience feelings of any kind in my dreams anymore, but there is an undeniably ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, a rotten belly bloated with maggots.

I reach the top only to find my way barred by a wrought-iron gate. The same darkness permeates the corridor behind the gate, but I can vaguely make out the movement of many shadowed figures. Their movement is perceptible only as shifting masses of different degrees of darkness. I stand and wait before the gate. One of the figures approaches and peers out at me through the bars with a single, seemingly disembodied eye—too white in contrast to everything else. A brusque voice. “Report to the second floor.”

The next moment I am on the second floor.

The second floor is one narrow room which stretches out into the distance, everything tinged a sickly orangish-yellow by the incandescent lighting. Expressionless, rigid young men in orange sweatsuits sit Indian-style in flawlessly straight rows at the edges of the raised platforms on either side of me. They are like a Greek colonnade—static, stoic, frozen in time. As I walk down the line of living(?) busts, I look down and see that I, too, am wearing the same bright orange sweatsuit, but it isn’t yangho; it isn’t in order. I can’t put my finger on why it’s not, but it worries me. I find a break in the row on my right, apparently left empty for me. I am putting down my bag in front of my cubby when an elderly Asian man with leathery, wrinkled skin and a stern countenance—an officer, his authority accentuated by the brass on his hat and lapels—storms down the line over to me.

“What is the problem, private?”

I stutter and stumble over my words. “I… I… I’m not supposed to be here, sir.” God, even in my dreams, I have a speech impediment.

No, not only am I not supposed to be here, what the hell am I doing here again? I wasn’t supposed to have been here the first time around. I try to ask, I try to explain that it’s all a huge goddam mistake, but I can’t. Like that first time, words fail me. “I… I… I….” Linguistically impotent, all I can do is stand there flustered and helplessly wonder, Why?

When I wake, I’m unable to sit up. Drained. A corpse on the coroner’s table, except my heart is beating. Beating furiously, racing at breakneck speeds. I look down past my nose and see it thundering in my chest and hear it ringing in my ears. Thumpthumpthumpthump. It’s pumping all the blood out of my body.

My eyes dart around the room. My blinds, my dresser, my damaged television held together with tape, the dust bunnies napping beneath my coffee table, my blinds again, my bed, the covers are a crumpled mess at my feet, the dresser again. It’s not much—self-sufficiency and poverty has made me a minimalist—but it’s my own place, it’s mine, shitty as it is. I am awake and alone and free. I lie there, staring at the ceiling, and feel my heart downshifting. Thump thump thump thump. I’m awake and alone and free.

I’m wary and it takes a while before I’m calm enough to go back to sleep. I’m wary because seven years ago, the nightmare wasn’t one I woke up from, it was one that I woke up to every morning for two whole years. That first night and too many a subsequent night over the course of those two years, I lied there in my musty, olive-green sleeping bag and stared up at the little holes in the plastered tiles of the ceiling, little black stars in an off-white, scummy sky, thinking to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The microcosm of my existence, my nightmare, was my own. None of the other twenty-two young men sleeping around me, packed in tight like sardines, shared my experience. None of the other six-hundred-thousand in the service shared it, for that matter. For me, here was Oz, a land of absurdity and impossibility. It was a land of tyrants and tormentors, trials and tribulations, and short men clad in green. Along my journey, I came across the heartless, the brainless, and the gutless, but none were decent companions. I walked that path alone, and the entire time, I wanted nothing save to go home. I am an American and here was the Korean Army.

The Korean Army is nothing like the U.S. Army. North Korea has gulags, the South has its Army. Many times throughout the experience, beginning with my very first journal entry, I compared my situation to an unjust imprisonment: an innocent man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

How else could I describe my experience? Imagine a deaf-mute thrown into prison for two full years. His fellow inmates pick on him, the guards pick on him, even the damn warden picks on him, and he has no idea what is going on. They don’t get bored of it and they don’t leave him alone.

It’s not a common occurrence. To my knowledge, I’m the only one. I’ve heard an occasional rumor of others who have been through the same experience, but there has never been any substantiation. I assume they are like me, tired of hearing the rumors and tired of having to think back to that chapter of their lives. They want to be left alone and remain only as urban legends, vague accounts of a friend of a friend as I’m sure my story has been to others. Even now, my story will be met with an occasional, “Oh, you’re that guy.”

How many that guys are there? It’s only a passing curiosity. Until I had started this draft of the book, I couldn’t have cared less. I didn’t try to look because I didn’t want to be found, either. Although I admit that there have been a few occasions in which I actually enjoyed recounting my experiences, more often than not I am inclined to keep this experience to myself. The decision is often based on whether I think the conversation will eventually benefit my libido or whether it will take a turn toward the annoying.

Why is it that people have this strange need to find meaning in tragedy? The fact of life is that shit happens. Among Korean men, military service is accepted for what it is: shigan nangbi, a waste of time, or a gongbaek, a blank space, a period of nothingness in one’s life. There really is not much to be learned from the Army, even if you are planning to pursue a career in a field involving shoveling or cleaning toilets, two things in which I had plenty of practice. The problem I have is when people try to find meaning in my experience for me.

“At least you learned how to speak Korean.” It’s the best that can be offered, but it’s like losing a foot to a landmine and hearing, “At least now you’ve doubled your sock inventory.” I was once told I was envied because I had the opportunity to learn the language in such a spartan environment. That must be why Korean males try so hard to evade conscription—it’s not like they need the intensive Korean lessons. I would argue with these wishful masochists but I’ve learned it’s a waste of time and I’ve done plenty of that, too.

I understand they are merely making an attempt at sympathy, but I’ve never asked for it and believe that certain things are better left unsaid. Statements about another door opening or divine plans for my life do nothing but irk me. Please keep your platitudes and beatitudes and silver linings to yourself. The people who readily offer such cheap words usually are the ones who claim that their world is coming to an end because they forgot to Tivo their favorite program or the bar doesn’t have their preferred brand of gin. The people who sit still and listen and occasionally nod are the ones who understand, who know that all that is really necessary is to listen. I personally prefer the listener to express his or her sympathy—if they feel so inclined—materially, by paying for dinner and drinks.

Can a question be rhetorical if it is never vocalized? The question—“What am I doing here?”—wasn’t a question asked in expectation of an answer. It was more an expression of dumbfoundedness. The fact of the matter is that I also accept that those two years are lost to me, a big blank in my personal history. I went to sleep at the beginning of 2004 and the next thing I knew, it was 2006. Like Rip van Winkle, but having dreamt a lot of strange dreams. In the dream that took place over Afghanistan, 25 miles outside of Kabul, I had a kind of Twelve Steps moment, deciding that I would only regret the things I have control over and only as long as I have control over them.

I am the protagonist of the story but a very unlikely one, an anti-protagonist who is innately passive, complacent, and emotionally stunted, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim or Camus’ Mersault. I might as well have been abducted by aliens or imprisoned in a French Algerian prison. Instead, I was to serve in the military of a foreign country which has technically been at war for the last 60 years. So it goes.

This is not an inspirational tale of growth or courage in the face of harrowing circumstances. More than a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit, it is a story of an average Joe, a product of a generation that is too lazy to even name itself, thrust into a uniquely odd experience and how he came out the other end with his mind and body relatively intact. Being by nature both lazy and cowardly, my modus operandi is to opt for the road well-traveled and least-resistant and to escape from reality by daydreaming. At least I have control over my daydreams.

I was asked the other day a good question, “Why are you writing this book?” That is what any question for which there is no clear answer is, a good question. It caught me off guard, mostly because I didn’t remember why. The most likely answer is that I was tired of sharing the story. I was tired of answering questions like “Why did you go?” and “How was it?” Half of the time, the questions are insincere, a common courtesy, like asking how someone’s day was when you’re more interested in what’s on TV that night. The other half of the time is comparatively worse because the Inquisitors don’t care about the pain I am subjected to as long as they hear what they want to hear.

There was a time when I thought of making a card explaining my handicap while I was in the Army. Once I was discharged, I still wanted to make the card but to answer frequently asked questions instead. This book is that card. It’s a long story.

I was on the subway the other day, pretending to sleep so the feeble, old lady standing in front of me couldn’t guilt me into giving her my seat when I felt something placed on my lap. Head still bowed, I cracked open an eye and saw that someone had placed a piece of paper there. That someone had also placed papers on the laps of my neighbors. The message on the paper went something like this: “Hello. I am mentally handicapped and selling these papers for the purpose of assisting me in making a living. Will you kindly buy one? Any amount will help. Thank you and God bless.” This book is that paper as well, but I’m hoping the publisher will take care of the distribution and financial collection aspects for me.

Memory is a funny thing. Perhaps it’s nature’s gift to the downtrodden, but we tend to recollect the past under a false, rosy light. Or as the ancient Romans would say, memoria praeteritorum bonorum, the past is always recalled to be good. There has been research which proved that humans are wired to fondly reminisce about painful Disneyworld experiences despite having to rough it under the hot summer sun in absurdly long, snakish lines and the constant complaining of tired and fussy children. In the Army, there were some comrades who had boldly and foolishly asserted that they wouldn’t mind going through the service again if they had to. Even sabotaged by faulty neurons, I could never make the same assertions. Bonorum indeed. I get the impression that the expression was coined by a couple of dumbfounded Roman soldiers standing around a campfire in Carthage. “Hey, you won’t believe the crazy shit I just heard Artonius say.”

It has also been proven that bad memories remain more vivid in our memory than the good. Luckily, the universe has endowed me with a horrendous memory faculty, and what a blessed endowment it is! If I had not written almost daily in my journals out of loneliness and boredom, I would not have been able to finish this book. Poring through my journals, I relive every memory. Some say that in order to purge yourself of traumatic experiences, you have to come face to face with them. It may be therapeutic, but it still gives me nightmares.

 This is about the first five pages of the manuscript, which is usually what agents ask for when submitting a query, so if you have any (constructive) criticisms, please leave a comment. Be gentle.


2 Responses

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  1. […] to experience the 1,000 years of peace it has been promised for decades. For more on this read: A great related post about this: […]

    World War 3 predictions

    March 2, 2011 at 3:32 am

  2. The above is not really spam, it’s a pingback from a site. I don’t know how this post relates to World War 3 or 1,000 years of peace, but I’ll take it. (I’m a little perturbed that I didn’t get the “great related post” intro, though….)


    March 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

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