I do not know north, south, east, or west by the sun’s location in the sky, by the way the wind might move a dog’s floppy ear, by the shadows of trees, or by the diamond glints from sun-burnt buildings. I am routinely bumped by men dressed in suits who walk as slow as ducks with their hands behind their backs, their eyes following the smoke of cigarettes. Immediately after these encounters, I stay still and the men walk on. They continue moving as if they have bumped into something solid yet inconsequential like a car door or the corner of a brick building. Example: last night a streetlight went out as I stepped by its base, and I stopped for a while to examine the ghost left by the outage, an oval expanding. The sunken bulb of the streetlight was a sign that something had ended completely without notice or warning, and in its sudden absence would be an opportunity I would take. Or: maybe someone who I knew but did not love died. No: the light distinguished was nothing more than the predictable fate of all things behind glass. Soon the separation between light and dark turned to a fade that moved like a wet brush taken to a naked page, rippling into a thin layer, and then two suited men struck each of my shoulders, one beat after the other. They were more startled than I was, and they cursed me in the dark while I looked up, uncomprehending.
When night blurs into neon, I press my finger against my apartment window and watch my breath mark the absence of my finger pad when I lift it from the glass. The city feels more solid than the glass between us. Out my window there are people, bars, mini-marts, mopeds, and taxi cabs. I don’t look down at that constant, mixed crowd much, and instead my eyes are frequently overwhelmed to look up and track the Korean signage I can understand, which leaves me blinking in the unfamiliar. I want to wrench the unfamiliar words from their steel posts and make them bend, ripple, and turn liquid; make them turn into something that can be understood, like knowing a waterfall by standing beneath its rush. I want to turn off the city’s fluorescence and stand in darkness that I can feel slip around me, and through my fingertips I will receive the nuance, the jokes, the offenses, the grace it takes to move here. I stand and stare like I am in front of a window for most of my time in the city, but when I am actually standing in front of my apartment’s window, I feel more in command of understanding my position here: I am not a native. I am not a stranger nor am I a guest. I am a visitor who doesn’t know her way.
Under a new streetlight, I rush to walk ahead of women in high heels, children eating ice cream and, again, the smoking businessmen who have failed to decide on where to have their next drink, their argument rising above the smoke escaping from their mouths. I have learned all these people are slow walkers at night, and to avoid them I veer towards the gangways between restaurants, where ajummas walk against time, and where I walk at their heels. After a couple blocks, one ajumma turns around to ask me something, I think, about the certainty of an event or about persimmons, and I tell her in halting Korean, with an address that is too personal to use with a stranger who is older than I am, that I don’t speak Korean well. She nods her head in confirmation and clicks her tongue to scold. Once we are inside a subway station, the ajumma lightly touches my elbow and turns to my right, closes her eyes, and shakes her head as if to say “Don’t look,” and then she is gone but it is too late: I turn and see a man lying prostrated on a cardboard box, the lack of his legs covered in black rubber tubing. The man feels my gaze and he tells me with sudden menace in Korean I suddenly understand: “I don’t trust rabbits. I don’t like the look of them.”
I am a radio whose frequency may be adapted through intentional tuning or whatever effects a little bit of wind might have on its antenna. The signals are something I don’t get to predict or transmit. Words like heart, trash, and palm, if you say them, I might catch them, but if you ask for them to be said, I will be silent in my effort. Rabbit, trust, look, them: words from this man have too little or too much meaning for me to truly get. Rabbit, trust, look, them: I walk on, doubting.
Once the secretaries at my hagwon warned me to never open my apartment window after I mentioned that I had found purple-green gray dust on the sill when I was cleaning. “Bad air from China,” they said, and then made me a doctor’s appointment during my lunch break. Instead of eating, I breathed in soft, white steam heavy with herbs and then got a massage, and afterwards felt sore, as if I had exercised.
That same morning, a student’s mother came to me, earnest in her complaint: “My son. He sits in your class three times a week for almost a year, and still his English is not perfect.” I immediately recognized her logic because I was living it: if I stayed long enough, if I sat here and then there, perhaps. Maybe. If I sat beneath the rush for long enough, soon I would know the quality of its speed, its temperature, and its degree of fall by doing nothing but sitting. I told the mother what my mother often told me, but I mistakenly slipped one word in for another: “He hasn’t decided to care, and that is why he has not improved.”
“He needs to care more?” the mother asked. She had not expected to hear the problem in terms of the heart, and I had not intended for it either. I meant to say her son hadn’t decided to practice, and that’s why he had not improved beyond the day’s lessons, but this was easier.
“He needs to care. Period,” I said instead, unwilling to move.
I am bumped by a schoolgirl who slows her steps as she struggles to take something from her backpack. She takes her time to apologize. She is more concerned with pulling the t-shirt over her existing Oxford collar shirt, flipping out the collar just so. I catch the English lettering on the t-shirt when she is still slightly turned: We Are Ancient Astronauts. The words stick with me as I study the dark street with its uneven and pockmarked concrete. I don’t care if these words belong to a bad band or if it’s another nonsensical English phrase that I often see on billboards and other advertisements. Any comprehension I can muddle together makes me seize in the pleasure of recognition: I consider how it would feel to walk with less and then no gravity, not moving against my own rooted weight but moving against the alien ease of my body’s ability to lift. I think of walking in wide and consistent leaps until the fear of always lifting, never sinking, overwhelms. I think of wanting to land heavily enough to crack stones into powder while I drift farther and farther away. There must be a swollen sense of falling, and never finding grace in the form of a handrail to grasp, and that, that I understand.
As I near my apartment, I hear the same, sullen cry of a woman who tries to sell rice cakes by screaming their name, making their three syllables pound against the glamour of Gangnam streets: chaep-sal-dduk! She drags her handcart behind her and whips it around in quick turns to block people from their nightly destinations, and makes them pause long enough for her to look into their faces and yell again. I gave her money once. She took it and continued to walk and continued to yell as if my hand were no different than a fountain’s edge with untipped coins. Tonight, I walk by her without pausing. She catches my eye, recognizes me, and lets me pass. It’s a true, fluent moment, and it’s a feeling close enough to victory, where I am exactly in the correct position to fall, and so I do. I trip over her handcart. I rip the Velcro lip of the handcart’s fabric container as I fall, and I see that it is actually filled with rice cakes portioned out in little black plastic bags. I swipe them to the street. As they roll, they look like jellyfish dead at the water’s surface. They are shiny, supple, and move in a way that reveals the road’s convex middle, a belly bloating. They extinguish in pops as men, women, and children step on them as they step off the curb painted with bright yellow warnings. The small rice cakes are inches away from my face. Their powder is soft on the road. They are real and they are here, and I was once denied their purchase for a logic that I can’t follow. The woman touches my elbow, and her touch is not light. I close my eyes as the woman yells at me, curses that my ears can separate from the beats of pain I feel in my head. I realize I can comprehend too much, but never enough to stay.