Fleeing America

Ten is a number that feels natural; we’ve ten fingers, counting by ten comes almost as second nature. (Try counting by seven or nine, it’s not nearly as comfortable.) To Pythagorans it was the holiest number and one by which they swore oaths. In Judaism ten is a symbol of power and luck. In the Bible, it’s considered complete and perfect. As I approach the ten-year mark on my time in the Republic of Korea the significance of the number weighs on me; 5,259,600 hours, 3650 days, 10 years, a decade. Perhaps ten is the perfect number of years to reflect upon past events, the ideal amount of time for the distillation of memories; distant enough that the harsh tannins have mellowed but not far enough in the past that sensory memories become flat and faded. The perfect balance between clarity and nostalgia.

I’ve powerful sensory memories of Philadelphia; Rittenhouse Park and how its smell would change with the seasons, sitting at a restaurant on the borders of the park in early summer, the smell of ozone, damp asphalt, food, and booze, the echo of laughter. The cacophony of the Italian Market, the grit in my teeth biking down Spring Garden, brunches, lunches, dinners and drinks with John and Vito, Sunday morning Bloody Mary’s at the Black Sheep, Specials at Bob and Barbara’s, staff drinks at The Tritone, first kisses, riding bikes until dawn with a girl I’d just met, goodbyes, a city of neighborhoods.

The year I’d left I’d chalked it up to dissatisfaction; twenty-seven, bored with my job and heartbroken over my latest failed relationship. My morning commute required I walk through the Philadelphia International Airport to reach the office of the vanity publisher where I worked as ‘marketing consultant.’ I’d walk through the airport, the dread of spending the day in my puce cubicle, under the hum and flicker of soul-crushing fluorescent lights, momentarily replaced by the fantasy that I was boarding a plane to some exotic locale.

The first time Korea popped onto my radar my girlfriend and I were walking through Rittenhouse Park on the way back from dinner. We’d became entangled in a stop-and-chat with a group of her friends, one of whom(a Korean-American), had just returned from a year in Korea. Through dramatic exhalations of cigarette smoke she made it clear she had a high amount of disdain for the country, yet my curiosity was piqued. This could be my ticket out of cubicle life! Jehan and I decided to pursue it. We’d see the world, broaden our horizons and get some perspective on what to do next. Several months later we broke up and I became a self-pitying ghost moping around my apartment, rattling imaginary chains. When I told Dr, Leo, my psychologist, I was off to Korea he asked me, “Why Korea, Joshua?”. I answered that it was the easiest, it was the first job I been offered. He responded “Yes, but why else. There’s more there isn’t there?”

Sitting on a bus, after I’d lived in Korea for some months Dr. Leo’s words returned to me. “Why Korea, Joshua.” It occurred to me that Korea was on the other side of the globe, one of the farthest places I could travel from Philadelphia, a whole new reality. Was that one of the reasons I came here? Another reason spun out of the countryside, went through the bus window and hit me in the solar plexus; the bus was full of women with long black hair. From the back, anyone of them could have been Jehan. A pang of sadness struck me just above my gallbladder. Was this another reason I came here? I spent the rest of the bus ride imagining her in front of me.

The next time Dr.Leo’s words returned I was thinking about my father and grandfather who had both fought wars in Asia; my Grandfather fought the Japanese at Guadalcanal, my father’s war was in Vietnam. When I was a child, my grandfather had spoken ill of the Japanese, and their wares, which my mother explained was a result of seeing his friends killed in battle. In my late teens and early twenties, my father opened up about the things he had seen in Vietnam. Was I trying to understand them in some way? Was I attempting some sort of penance? Did I carry secret guilt that my grandfather and father had flown around the world to kill Asian people? Was that one of the reasons I came here? I thought more about my ancestors. My maternal grandfather came to America from Spain, in fact, most of my ancestors were relatively new arrivals to the United States. Could nomadic genes be another reason?

The imaginary Dr. Leo continued to ask questions. You were a political science major? You were really interested in the Cold War, right? Isn’t Korea one of the last places where the Cold War is playing out? Isn’t drinking culture quite prevalent there? You like a good drinking session with your pals, don’t you? The bars, singing rooms, and restaurants stay open until past sunrise don’t they?

With time difficult truths become more approachable, their sharp edges dull. It’s not because they’ve crystallized into something saccharine, or been saturated with nostalgia, but because one knows the outcome of the story. The thing that was causing so much anxiety has passed, it happened, or it didn’t. One dealt with it and time went on. There are a multitude of reasons as to why I came to the Republic of Korea, but one overshadows the rest. It was something I knew but didn’t feel comfortable embracing until recently.

My story is similar to so many other Americans I’ve met teaching in East Asia; I graduated university with crippling student loan debt and health insurance that would soon expire. I found a job with a vanity publisher, not the perfect position but one that would keep the wolves from the door. There was a moment of relief, I’ll have health insurance, I can get medicine if I’m sick or injured and not dig myself further into debt. I can repay my student loans. Then the loan repayments began and I, like so many others, had to choose between repaying my student loans or paying rent. I asked for a lower monthly payment but was told pay the full amount or default on the loan and be penalized. A bleak future cemented itself in my imagination. How would I ever get ahead? Was this it? Working at a job with little upward mobility, trapped under a mountain of student loan debt, and mounting credit card debt, for the next fifteen years? Friends with degrees, advanced degrees, couldn’t find jobs in their fields, or any jobs at all, and ended up as bartenders, waiters, and bike messengers. Like me, they told themselves it was temporary.

In East Asia it’s a familiar story; the lack of opportunity caused economic migration out of the United States. Irony at its finest; a generation or two ago our parents and grandparents came to America in search of opportunity. When one points out the lack of opportunity, they’re met with cries of “oh they’re just lazy, there’s plenty of opportunity in America!” Maybe there was a time when that was true, but that time has passed. Korea alone is home to 30,000 English teachers imported from abroad, a good percentage of them American. Like our parents and grandparents many of us have been forced to leave in search of opportunity and, like them, many of us have flourished; we’ve gotten advanced degrees, become lectures at universities, learned second and third languages, traveled, started families, bought homes, started business, and given back to the communities in which we live. I can say, with a fair degree of certainty, that had we not left the United States we wouldn’t have been able to achieve much of what we have. To add insult to injury, the big financial intuitions that caused the economy to collapse(some of whom held our student loan debts) were given billions of dollars in bailout money.

I often dream of returning to the United States but, for now, my life is here. My career and family are here, and beyond that, there are certain things that are deeply unsettling about my birth country. The lack of universal healthcare and cost of higher education is downright preposterous. In a country as rich as the United States healthcare should be a basic human right, as should affordable, or free, higher education. One shouldn’t have to enter into a contract of indentured servitude for access to higher education or healthcare.

 Then there are the guns. I never knew what a weight I was carrying until it was removed. The year I left Philadelphia 1,553 shootings had taken place in the city proper, and 333 people had been murdered, mostly by firearms. On a number of occasions, I’d witnessed gun violence up close, but the weight and abnormality of it was never fully realized until I moved out of the country. I didn’t notice it was there until it wasn’t. One shouldn’t have to worry about being shot while going about their day to day activities, full stop.

In The Republic, Plato introduces the concept of the Noble Lie, or a lie told to make society function. At times, and for many, in the United States it was a Noble Half Truth that kept society humming along; if you work hard you’re going to make it, rags to riches, it can, and will, happen to you. For many in 2019, as was the case for me in 2008, it is merely a lie. It is true that for a particular segment of the population the American Dream is alive and well, a level of wealth has been achieved that has cemented a family’s socio-economic status for generations to come. What Mathew Stewart calls the New American Aristocracy. These people don’t worry about having healthcare, how to pay for university, and are, in most cases, far removed from the gun violence and crime that plagues many Americans. It becomes more evident every day, there are two Americas.

I often feel one of the Americas calling me back, the promise of escaping apartment life(most people in the ROK live in apartments, even in rural areas), buying an 18th century Georgian colonial somewhere in New England, a yard where my children can play, a vegetable garden, Christmases and Thanksgivings with my American family. Then I think about my children and the things I had to endure in my America, the America where growing up lower middle class is a hurdle very hard to overcome. Not only does it push one into a financial corner, but it also forces one into a mental space of being less-than, a place where guilt and shame become commonplace. What have I done wrong? Why don’t I have new Nikes? I didn’t know these were bobos. Why don’t my parents own a home? Why can we not afford things? Kurt Vonnegut wrote it perfectly in Slaughter-house Five

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, 'It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.' It is, in fact, a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

 I think of the talented, smart people I know living out lives of silent desperation, forced to work at jobs they despise to make ends meet. I read statics on the staggering rates of incarceration, murder, and gun crime and their correlation to socioeconomic status. I see an America that has forgotten about class to argue about gender pronouns and bathrooms, people who should be united under a common banner spewing hatred and vitriol toward one another. I see a wasted dream, a country that could set the bar high, provide for its citizens an unheralded standard of living. A country that had the chance to offer equality of opportunity, a basic standard of living for all its citizens. Instead, unchecked greed has created two Americas. I dream that one day the country of my birth will get its act together, that my family and I will be able to return to a nation where firearms aren’t ubiquitous, healthcare is considered a human right, and all Americans are guaranteed a certain standard of living. Until that time I’ll remain a man without a country.