Live free or die
It’s been a month (well, 33 days to be exact) since I boarded a 10 a.m. Asiana Airlines flight out of Korea and arrived in New Hampshire, northeastern U.S., around 9 p.m. the same day, 13 hours back in time. The world is that small; more than 15 hours in the air, two more in a car and I found myself in the boondocks, the woods and stars the only visible things outside my brother’s Cape-style home. There would be a lot to get used to.
The first thing I missed was independence — strange because the state motto of New Hampshire as declared by a famous American Revolutionary War hero, General John Stark, is “Live free or die.” Plus, part of the reason I left Seoul was to gain some independence from a job that had drained my soul dry. Now here I was an eight-mile walk from the nearest main road with nothing but two giant duffle bags and a backpack.
Sure, I’d thought about it a million times before I handed back my unsigned contract, cleaned off my desk, emptied my cabinets, packed and mailed my boxes and stuffed those bags heavy to the point that I thought I wasn’t going to be able to carry them more than 10 feet. But that was just thinking. This was it.
My older brother had been gracious, offering his home and help or whatever it was I needed. He even made sure there was work for me to do — “I saved some trees for you,” he said referring to future firewood still standing in the thick woods behind the home. The 1825 house has two floors, two bedrooms and two baths — distinctions that make a guest more at ease. Nonetheless, my self-sustained life in Asia felt every inch of the 7,000 miles away where I left it. My modern, one-bedroom apartment in the eastern Gwanjin District of Seoul, just a 10-minute walk from work and Mount Acha; my three-minute walk to the local market and two more to a 24-hour convenience store; my 15-minute walk to Gunja subway station for lines 5 and 7 (and on to anywhere); my membership status with phone, cards and markets; my health insurance; my pension — all these amenities and familiarities I left behind.
For the first few days this reality distracted my mind, pulling it away from the beauties of my surroundings, throwing a pall over the fecundity of New England spring. My first real walk quieted those distractions as I stared out over the chestnut, heather, jasmine and lavender hues that filled the rising spring canopies. The rush, bustle and “convenience” of the city drifted away off over the hills and lakes that fill the region.
Things will take longer, I told myself, as I put one foot in front of another on a walk that brought me more than 10 miles over some five hours. Transitions require some level of dependence and moving across the world means leaving things behind, one step at a time.
As a white man in Korea standing over six-feet tall, one thing that I never had to worry about was being accused of something, being leered at by officials, feeling like I, individually, was wrongly blamed. Sure, I got stared at every day on the streets, pointed at by children who called out “me-gook-in,” or “way-gook-in” to indicate I was most likely an American or foreigner and, yes, I’ve been grouped with “foreigners” behaving badly. But people of authority — except officials at Seoul’s Omokgyo Immigration Office — treated me as the last person likely to commit or have committed a crime. Police waved me by, subway officials never gave me a second glance (they even helped me carry those heavy bags) and, most importantly, airport security never treated me as a potential threat or miscreant.
America is different. As soon as I got ready to go through security at the “new” terminal 8 in New York’s J.F.K. International Airport three hours after I’d deplaned my Seoul flight, I got nervous.
Although I was only headed to Boston, my plane was departing out of the international terminal. A large white woman with short curly hair dressed in a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uniform barked out orders — “Remove your liquids!”; “Empty your pockets!”; “Take out laptops!”; “Take off your shoes!” — while frightened-looking passengers shuffled through the queue.
A stern-looking black man with a crew cut and broad shoulders ignored my “good afhternoon,” took my boarding pass and passport, examined them for much longer than anyone else had during my trip, looked up at me with hard, tightened eyes as if something was bothering him, then sent me on my way. Monitors hanging from the ceiling kept flashing the “3-1-1 program” and I heard the large woman shouting out the term intermittently. Simply put: 1) Liquids, aerosols and gels must be in containers three ounces or less, 2) Items must be put in a one quart, clear plastic zip-top bag, and 3) Only one zip-top bag per passenger.
Shoes, jacket, belt and watch off, pockets emptied (it would be easier to strip) and breath held, I entered the full-body scanner for the first time under the guidance of a short, stout and serious Latina woman. “Raise your hands over your head and turn to the left,” she ordered. Ten seconds later the same woman guided me out with a suspicious look on her face. To my left, a middle-aged woman was being “patted down.” A male TSA officer wearing rubber gloves with a large, diagonal scar across his forehead approached and asked what was wrong. “There’s something on his upper right leg,” she told him. And he checked — closely. So this is America, I thought.
Now, back in the countryside, I see the police on the move more than I ever did in Korea, patrolling, glaring, slowing as they pass and waiting in speed traps. I swear one weekend I saw more police cars than I would during a year in Korea. And, from what I can tell, going through New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Texas, the police are big, tall men with an attitude and a gun. There is something unfriendly and intimidating about them that doesn’t give you that comforting, they’re-here-to-help-me feeling. Sure, in Korea, you’re not completely confident the police could help if called upon but, as an expat, you also aren’t intimidated by them. Back “home,” I miss the nonchalance of Korean law enforcement and I wonder if it’s a little — or a lot — over the top here.
But it’s only been a month and as my brother usually says, “You can get used to anything” — I think he’s paraphrasing Charles Schultz who said, “I think I’ve discovered the secret of life: You just hang around until you get used to it.” Still, surrendering my Asian independence and stepping into a high-strung, post-9/11 “police” state isn’t something I’m quite ready to get used to.
John M. Rodgers is a founding editor of The Three Wise Monkeys webzine and currently acts as Groove Korea’s editor-at-large. John is back in the United States after a long stint in Korea and will be writing about readjustment. — Ed.