1. What was that?
I awoke from a sonic boom thunderclap to see fresh contrails so close they streaked across the bedroom window of my high-rise apartment. A fighter jet? I didn’t know. Whatever it was had left only its long white traces in the blue sky between the coastal range and the sea. I saw that the traffic on Gwangan Bridge over Suyeong Bay was at a standstill while buses, sedans, taxis, and scooters raced amid incessant horn blasts on the thoroughfare below. Morning commute, business as usual. But on that day, something really unnerved me.
When I first moved to South Korea in the fall of 2009, there was something comforting about seeing US naval ships dock here. Back when everything felt so foreign. Walking around the city, I’d see young couples with identically matched t-shirts, shorts, socks, and sneakers; young ladies strutting in high heels with a cell phone outstretched in one hand, turning the handicap-accessible paths over the sand at Haeundae Beach into a fashion show catwalk; men of all ages clad in hospital-issue pajamas, smoking while pushing mobile IV stands on their way to buy cheap coffee from take-out windows; poodles, Pomeranians, and bichons with ears dyed hot pink or lime green, wearing sequined sweatshirts and colorful doggy booties; and octopuses with dreams of cephalopod emancipation climbing out of small kiddie pools for a very brief stroll on the wet pavement in the alleys of the Jagalchi Fish Market. All of this used to seem so strange. So, when sailors were teeming on these shores, on leave from vessels flagged with the Stars and Stripes, they represented something recognizable and familiar: conspicuous reminders of home.
Nowadays though, life in Busan, which was once strange, has become mundane. However, as Pyongyang prepares to ignite “an unimaginable sea of fire” and launches test missiles soaring over Hokkaido while the White House considers a “bloody nose” strike and boasts of “bigger buttons,” spotting the USS Nimitz or the USS Ronald Reagan outside my window no longer provides the same comfort and security I once felt when I first saw them in the harbor.
2. Is it safe there?
Before I lived in Busan proper, I landed in the outskirts across the Nakdong River in a quiet, brand-new condo subdivision. Before I learned about Skype and realized I could pop into a PC bang to video chat with loved ones for a thousand won per hour (about a dollar), I’d drop a man cheon won, a green ten thousand note, on a calling card from the Family Mart. At the counter, I’d show the clerk my phone. Then I would gesture with my forefinger and thumb on the other hand, as if I were a bouncer inspecting a driver’s license. “Card-uh for miguk call,” I’d say, stammering in Konglish, hoping he’d understand—Miguk and maekju, America and beer, being the only Hangeul words I knew back then. The young man would then retrieve a long, narrow shoe box from under the counter containing stacks of various calling cards featuring different colors and flags. Each time I bought one was like buying lotto scratchers at a gas station. Some offered up to 110 minutes of calls from the ROK to the US. Some only thirty-seven minutes. Once or twice, none at all. When I did get through to my mom, conversations always started with, “Hi mijo! How are you? I’m glad you called. I just read something in the news. You really think it’s safe there?”
3. What’s it like over there?
My friends back home word it a little differently than my parents, but are really asking the same thing: What’s it like over there in Korea with, you know, Kim Jong-il? Later, Kim Jong-un? Or simply, the North? A question I’ve been asked countless times over the years that I’ve never been able to consistently answer. Usually, though, I’d remind my friends and family that the peninsula is not just divided but still technically at war, yet people don’t live in fear. They just go about their daily lives. And if you ask the locals, most will tell you that whatever belligerent rhetoric from the North that is reported by the American media ends up being a much bigger deal to Americans than it does to them. They ignore the Supreme Leader’s bellicose rants—they’ve been hearing such provocations for over sixty years. So it goes.
4. Are you sure it’s safe there?
For being Korea’s second city, a metropolis of four million, it’s quite walkable. Though it’s not as compact as San Francisco, Busan is packed with its peaks, beaches, and bridges that remind me of The City. But when people ask, Are you safe there? I tell them my only fear is being run over. Run over by the motorcycle riders and delivery men on scooters who believe the sidewalk is a diamond lane. A friend of mine suffered a broken leg and some cracked ribs from being hit by a KyoChon Chicken driver on a speeding moped. For that reason, my wife, Susanna, no longer uses her iPod when walking to and from work. I, on the other hand, put music on low and recall what my lacrosse coach said about playing defense—“Check man. Check ball. Head on a swivel!”
More dangerous, though, are the Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and taxi drivers. As for the former, those with the German imports, with money comes impunity. I wait three full seconds before stepping off a curb, watching them blur by under a red light. I pause even longer when a taxi is approaching. Even then, just when I’ve almost completely made it across, a scooter may be passing a bus on the right, hidden from sight, trying to get a jump on the traffic, blowing through the red. Hence, check ahead, check behind, both sides, constantly. Head on a swivel.
One day I was walking down by Gwangalli Beach. Crossing the street, over halfway through the crosswalk, with the green man giving me the right of way, I noticed the driver of a black Jaguar had decided to proceed making his right turn while looking down at the phone in his palm. An older lady was holding hands with her twenty-something-year-old daughter under a parasol. They took two steps, then jumped back to safety on the curb. I stopped in the middle of the intersection, pissed that the man driving still did not look up to notice me a mere foot away, so I slapped the driver-side back window with my left hand. The smack of my tungsten wedding ring made the sound of glass cracking. The daughter, now saucer-eyed, made a ring with her mouth, then gasped with an audible, “Oh!” The jagoff passed the corner restaurant with its tanks of live eel, squid, and flatfish, then he stopped in the middle of the road. My inclination was to run, but I thought that would definitely exhibit guilt, so I quickly put my head down and picked up my pace in long strides weaving between tourists and beachgoers until I ran up the stairs to an expat bar on the fourth floor.
Ten minutes later, my friend K showed up. When I told him about my near miss, my kind of hit-and-run, he repeated what my then-girlfriend-now-wife has been telling me for years: “You are a waygukin. A foreigner. Remember there are two types of judicial systems here: one for natives and one for foreigners. And if the two are mixed up in a dispute, ninety percent of the time, the native wins. So, yeah, keep your head on a swivel, but keep your hands to yourself. Got it?”
“Fine,” I said. “You’re right.” We knocked back our pints and settled into another round. “All right, you’ve been here a long time, so let me ask you something then—how do you respond when people ask you, How’s it going over there? You staying safe over there?”
“Yeah, people always ask that, right? I get messages all the time on Facebook from my family, friends in Indiana, saying, ‘That crazy fat man over there’s building nuclear bombs. We pray for you. Stay safe over there, Kenneth May.’ To which, I try not to get into it, but sometimes I message back: ‘I read six people were murdered over Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis. To put it in perspective, six people shot, killed in Indianapolis over the holiday. That’s more than all the murders in Busan last year.’ So, I just got to say to them, ‘Stay safe over there, too!’”
5.When are you coming home?
Recently, at the height of all the saber-rattling from both sides, I woke up to see a simple message pop up in my Gmail. It was from my older brother, who lives in Bakersfield. He wrote, “Stop the madness and come home! Get home safe!”
He’s telling me to come home, I thought. I read that in Bakersfield the night before, two victims died of gunshot wounds at Kern Medical Center. Local NBC-affiliate KGET news was reporting, “Halfway through 2018, homicides in Kern County outpacing 2017 killings.” Yet he’s telling me to “Stop the madness!” Considering the scourge of gun violence across the States these days, I wanted to tell him don’t worry about me or tell me to come home—you should worry about your own damn safety! But I didn’t.
Instead, I replied, “You know, California will always be home to me, just like New York is home to Susanna, but Busan is our home. Why don’t you come visit sometime and see for yourself? This place isn’t so strange, so crazy. It’s home. Hope you’re good, Brother. Stay safe, too.”