Attempts 4: Expatriation, Teaching, and Memory

I was grading tons of essays today–the kinds of student essays that show the students were mostly paying attention but were not quite there yet–and listening to podcasts.  I took at break, walking around my third floor Cairo apartment and noticing that it was raining.  It’s hyperbolic to say it never rains in Cairo, but this is a culture that had the status of bread basket to both the Roman and Islamic world because it was so wet yet never rained enough to erode the minerals in the soil.  For some reason, perhaps somewhat obvious, I thought about the time in Torreon, Mexico, when the uncharacteristically heavy rains put out my gas water heater, and I miss lit it, and melted my eye brows and third-degree burned my face to a vivid pink. Then I thought about my first monsoon season in Yong-in, when I just met my current partner over talking about competitive debate in South Korea, and Osan river flooded the first floor of my apartment building, leaving me having to climb up and down fourteen flights of stairs.

Then I thought about my last teaching day in Georgia. Listening to podcasts and backing up my classroom for the last time.  My first three years of teaching had been hit-and-miss, and I was exhausted. A few months prior, my principal had given me a warning: if two other teachers didn’t retire that year, I was to be laid off.  I had applied and been accepted to a Phd in Educational Leadership, but got no funding, and without a full-time job, I had hedge my bets.  Two weeks prior, a friend of mine had asked me to interview for a job. This friend was my former philosophy professor in undergrad–a rather conservative philosopher who had tried to get out of academia in housing, then when that collapsed into the abyss that was 2008-9, he left to Korea to work in publishing and then at Korean Universities. I did not know this.  We had not spoken in several years aside to argue about politics and Hegel, and sometimes relationship between Buddhist logic and post-Enlightenment Christian logic.  He would later live with me in the ends of his marriage for a few weeks after we refused to speak over a political argument. He was trying to find qualified lecturers for University and my part-time job after school had been teaching Composition and Literature courses to community college students. I sent my C.V. to him, and went a week, I got an interview.  That interview as at four o’clock in the morning because I was interviewing with a panel of professors in Seoul.

I got that job, but at the moment I was packing up my desk and going to tell my Department Head at the community college I was teaching that I would be leaving in two months, I felt like an utter failure.  My marriage was on the rocks, although I had no idea that it would end. My then wife had lost her job somewhat unfairly and unexpectedly, and was swimming in a sea of confusion about what to do with her life. Our worlds had moved further and further apart–I thought she was, of course, as intelligent as me but she was intimidated by the academic world I had moved in and since she had no college degree, she was not employable at any institution that I would work at abroad.  Furthermore, I was leaving as the first class of students I taught who were graduating, and as their graduation ceremony completed, I just slowly stuck out of the hall my school was renting, and went home to drink.

So as I was listening to a podcast like “Atheist News” or “The Geologic Podcast,”  trying to laugh, sending tons of documents to University a million miles away, canceling my plans to appear at Skepticamp.  I stopped blogging on the first incarnation of this blog for about a year, I had let my live journal go dormant. I was drinking a lot of whisky. I had also gained weight.  I would go to a dinner one last time with my ex-wife to a new Chinese restaurant, and I remember just playing with the orange chicken and trying to talk about closing out my 401-3b to pay for our medical bills before I left the country.  We argued about whether or not it may sense for her to move in and go to school online in South Korea, if she could transfer our cats to Korea.

I went a few times to my favorite used book store and sold most of my unsigned physical books.  I bought a kindle despite thinking e-books where stupid because they were easy to transport from country to country. I said goodbye to some students. I visited my family, and would say goodbye to some  people. I got on a plane to Seoul, and softly and quietly tearing up as left my life behind, I watched mumble-core movies and French films about Moliere and Mic Macs, and was wowed by the powder blue uniforms of the Korean inflight attendants. All of whom were preternaturally tall, and disturbingly beautiful.  A Korean woman rested her head on my shoulder.  I felt alone.  My relationship to the past changed.

I mark time by places there forward, and my media I consume.  Each period of my life feels discrete, although for months there were reminders.  Three months later, I found my now ex-wife’s hair in my clothes and books.  I was in shock, and my ex- and I drifted further apart. She got a new job.  We fought sometimes.  I started talking to other female friends.  I visited over Christmas, and then we decided to divorce.

In that time, I wrote this poem, which was later published in the Ann Arbor Review,


Moving my books out of baggage
a brown hair from my wife
brushes my hand. Fissure
and erasure. Trace of small
moment, even the hair
without the scent, dialectic
pull of the memory. Loss.
Once there was a love
story. Once a beginning,
middle, end. Here absence
stalls and sputters. Trace
of keratin, cutting of crown,
moving her here, a bleak
scar across a page and palm.
Everything apart pulls back
together. Gently tucking
the hair into my pocket,
I become ellipses
as if I can reconstruct
specters from loss.

Yet at the end of the day, the specters of lose became a new life: one in which the trauma of my twenties–some of which is too personal to mention on this kind of blog–turned into a turn to philosophy, writing, and travel. I have been a writer for six or seven years, but in jumping to Korea and packing up my old life, when I really moved into having something to write about other than childhood, and something to say about America other than just the reactions to whatever political tribe seems nearest to my emotive core.

Travel changes you.  Travel becomes you.  It unsettles your sense of time and plac,e but in that disruptive sorting, defines time and place for you more clearly.


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