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Letters From Seoul

Credit: Ralph Dagza

Dark Twisted Fantasies

In November 2010, Kanye’s new album exploded just as North Korea launched missiles.

Tuesday, Nov. 23

While I was at work today, teaching vocabulary to second graders in a robust satellite city of Seoul, North Korea launched an artillery barrage off the northwestern coast of my host country.

To a colleague who’s only been here three months, reacting to the artillery fire: “Did you call your cousin on the base?”

“Yeah, they said it was nothing,” he said. “How do we get out of here if I don’t have a car?”

“I’m going to steal a taxi,” I said, trying to settle his nerves. “Hey, I’m heading out after work on Thursday to buy some of those little green pumpkins.”

“They’re gourds, right? You’re making gourd soup? Aren’t they decorative vegetables?”

In the background, Pitchfork Media Wingman is playing Kanye West’s “Power” on the office computer. Between us, there is some mild head-nodding.

“I’m stealing that album tonight off a torrent so I can have it when I cook on Saturday,” I said.

Someone else said, “I hope this doesn’t turn into war and kill my dinner. My fridge is filled with ingredients.”

Tuesday got hairy. Smoke plumes coming from the island. We wondered how much South Korea would fire back. The North has around 10,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, we’d heard. Every one of us has a friend up there. When they say “sea of fire” in their state broadcasts, I think they mean it.

We made stock. I love making stock; it’s the world’s best humidifier. I’m coming down with something, so I hit the bed around 9:30 p.m. Hard to sleep when you’ve got your MacBook open in case the American Embassy sends out a warning e-mail for evacuation. I’ve received a warning already. Skype bonks in and out . Friends begin sending the “Are you OK?” emails. Strange dreams about highways. Nobody really knows how far away I live from the trouble.

Wednesday, Nov. 24

Strange day at school. Kindergarten kids asked me about North Korea. I told them they’re poor people with bad teachers. We rehearsed the Christmas play. I’m checked Google news alerts secretly while they did phonics work. They asked me to draw a bear eating beehives on the board to mark each page they finished. I forgot to do so. Very distracted teaching going on.

Thoughts about the upcoming Thanksgiving dinner permeate office discussion. We’ve scored three turkeys, and I found wine on sale for 5,000 won a bottle, a great price . A colleague wants to bake bread pudding with persimmons in my oven on Friday night.

This is traditional Korean brinksmanship. They need attention. Have you ever seen a turkey with a bacon yarmulke?

“Any of your friends in Seoul, the newbies, talking about leaving?”

“Janie’s friend had plans to visit this week. She canceled.”

“What are you making this weekend? I’m shopping on Thursday night.”

“I’m putting Cool Whip on roasted sweet potatoes.”

“How Idaho.”

Yonhap News Agency out of Seoul was on point with most leads. The story shifted from retaliation to damage control and mourning. Two Korean Marines killed. Houses still on fire. The kids wanted to talk about what’s happening. I told the older ones it’s a mistake. Like good Koreans, they got back to work.

The foreigners in the office all have their say during lunch and such. I sequester myself in a corner room to watch TED talks for an hour. TED talks are a sedative.

Hitting the bed again at 9:30 p.m., I was up all night with Kanye lyrics in my head and dreams of China. Kanye and Red China weren’t meant to spoon. At 4 a.m., I was talking to a woman in Seattle, drinking a French press of black coffee, and popping Advil.

“This is traditional Korean brinksmanship,” I said. “They need attention. Hey, have you ever seen a turkey with a bacon yarmulke? That’s what we’re doing this year.”

I spoke with my dad around 6 a.m., Korea time. Nobody else was around to take the call. He’s a military man, but we didn’t talk artillery.

I searched YouTube for “The Joy.” Man, Curtis Mayfield is good over a decent sample. Good at 7 a.m. after a pot of coffee. I danced around a bit before hitting the shower.

Thursday, Nov. 25

To Pitchfork Media Wingman on the way to work: “I’ve been up since 4 a.m. reading analysis from all corners of the earth.”

“That’s a lot of coffee for you,” he said, “isn’t it?”

We both agreed it’s odd how inflated the zeitgeist seems around this new Kanye album. We can’t think of its antecedent. Outkast and “Hey Ya!”, maybe. I’m more interested in talking about incendiary artillery rounds, the kind the North Koreans fired on Tuesday, but we talk about Jay-Z and the Richard James sample.

“Nobody who listens to Kanye knows who Aphex Twin is,” he said, turning a corner.

“Hey, nobody knew where Korea was until Tuesday. It takes an innovator, or a madman.”

In my art class, my kindergarten kids made artifacts out of white clay. I made a giant chicken with tiny skulls around its feet. The kids asked me if they could make death chickens, too.

That night, I mused over my dad’s oyster casserole and mom’s cranberry sauce. What was I going to do about it? I watched Richard Dawkins talk about Charles Darwin with Craig Venter, and drank more wine. I contemplated my genes. My genes let me feel my way into the night, straight after some more wine, past dinner, to a Korean pancake hut for some mung bean cakes and rice wine. Our neighborhood stood quaint as it ever has. We drank too much rice wine, but it came in a kettle, so it’s easy to pour, fun to pour.

Friday, Nov. 26

Field trip to the science museum. On the bus, I sat with some pre-school kids and they told me I have a big face. They wanted to play rock, paper, scissors, but I drank my thermos of coffee instead, looking at foothills as we ascended in the school bus to the superhighway that runs the entire length of the country.

“Justin teacher, do you like pumpkins?” the kids asked.

“I’m making pumpkin soup tonight. I’m going to use my head in the soup.”

“Don’t forget to take off your hat,” said one boy.

I said, “Why don’t you wear it instead?”

We sang a short verse of “White Christmas.” In the back of my head, though, Kanye Fucking West told me about a bad bitch and a bag of weed.

Returning to school, the kids watched a movie and I ate homemade marinated beef with homemade bean paste on lettuce leaves. One of the mothers did this for me, made me the food. I tend to think of meals as totems of things to come. This lunch was a totem, an omen of sorts.

My last two periods should have been spent doing clerical schoolwork. Instead, I listened to a dubstep broadcast from RinseFM, “Blackdown and Dusk.” Over the last year, I’ve grown to appreciate the minimal, drum and bass descendent that is dubstep. I switched over again to “The Joy” on YouTube.

“So Appalled” sounded good just before bed, especially the first few lines, “It’s like that sometimes, I mean ridiculous, the shit ridiculous.”

Alone, at a corridor computer, with nobody around, more nodding to what is a really good flow by Mr. West.

At home, I had company in the shape of a Canadian blonde from Nova Scotia. Company in the kitchen is always good, and it’s still Thanksgiving in my head, even though it’s Friday.

“Have you seen the ass on Nicki Minaj?” I said. “I saw her bend over at that NYC show on YouTube. Amazing.”

“Did you just burn yourself?” she said, “Run it under cold water. I’ve got it.”

“Yes,” I said, “looks like you’re picking up the slack. Scoop out those pumpkins.”

Later in the album, she said, “Did Kanye just say Malibooyeah?”

“Chipotle peppers will finish this off,” I said, hand under the water. I leaned over to look in the oven.

“How’s my bread pudding looking?” she said.

“How’s my ass instead?” I said, shaking around to “Devil in a New Dress.” Rick Ross is fantastic. I didn’t even know how I knew who Rick Ross was.

“Sipping rosé all alone,” he said. Rosé mimosas, I thought.

So much to read. People said more retaliation was necessary. Things seemed very hot, even though there’d been no shooting since Tuesday. I turned on Richard Dawkins again. “So Appalled” sounded good just before bed, especially the first few lines, “It’s like that sometimes, I mean ridiculous, the shit ridiculous.”

I dreamt about China again. I made crab cakes in my dreams. I was searching for hairy crab in different markets. Where were the breadcrumbs?

Tuesday, Nov. 30

Done with November, a week since nonsense crept back to our doorsteps. I still checked the news feeds on the hour. Laughs came in and out like cats. Saturday night was a good party. As an expat, you get to be very fucking good at throwing parties where you forgot quickly where you were, whether it was Paris or Seoul. Nobody discussed the possibility of getting shelled here, in Anyang. Some of folks at the party live in Seoul, within range of that artillery. None of us know how it would go if these storied enemies decided to put it all aside and see how it went down.

I’ve had dreams of riding a bicycle out through the country, heading towards the Air Force base about an hour south. In our more sauced moments, we’ve talked about just drinking through the worst of it. Nobody knows, it’s a giant, dangerous guess.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a solid piece of 21st century work from a man who wants more than anything to be modern. We’re all about departure here. Some of us will head home next month, some of us just got here last month. For Thanksgiving, we thought about recipes, some of us using things we inherited. The only thing I inherited was a tendency to burn myself on the oven. I’ve got a little scar growing to prove it. No telling how long it’ll remain.

Justin Stone is an English teacher and writer living in Anyang, South Korea. He is the author of Quomodo, a fiction serial featured on The Apartment: Broadcast. His first novel, The Adonis Luxury Machine is in the final stages of composition. Occasionally, he writes under the alias Divad Q. Nead. More by Justin Stone