At mid-day, the scorching African sun brings the continent to a halt. Villagers seek cover inside their huts, children play under the shade of mango trees. Don and I walk the footpath to our thatch roofed home for lunch, and poisonous snakes coil in the dark, cool corners of everyone’s outhouse (chimbudzi) in Chichewa, the language of Malawi.
When the notice arrives that we’re accepted into The Peace Corps and will spend the next two years in Malawi, we race to the World Atlas. Malawi is a small country whose eastern border is an enormous fresh water lake –the fifth largest in the world - about 365 miles long and 52 miles wide on the equator in Eastern Africa.
It’s l965 and Sergeant Shriver signed our induction papers. We’re twenty-four and ready to save the world. We arrived at our post two weeks ago, and are well into our teaching jobs at the Teacher Training College. Don teaches Math and Science and I teach English as a Second Language.
After lunch, I dash to the outhouse before afternoon classes begin. I’m comfortable sitting on the one in the little brick chimbudzi because it’s cool inside. I glance up and notice the bamboo pole holding up the thatch roof moving languidly toward the outhouse door, but to my heart-stopping horror, it’s not the pole at all, it’s the slender, lithe, slithering kalikwikwi snake, lime green in color to fit in with the foliage and known for its breakneck speed when striking.
At that moment, it lifts its head off the pole with lightning speed and aims a hissing head at me. I roll off the one holler and out onto the grass. Then I run like hell until I’m a safe distance away. I look back to see the snake’s head poking out of the chimbudzi where the pole holds up the peak of the thatch roof.
Our houseboy, Elliott Mbalazo, dashes toward me with a machete in hand, followed closely by Don brandishing a broom.
Elliott gives the orders. “ Mr. Don, you go in the outhouse and chase the snake out with the broom. When he sticks his head out further, I’ll chop it off.”
Don’s chin drops. “Me, go in there? With a broom? And chase the killer snake out with it? Are you nuts, Elliott? I’m a dead man and I’m not twenty-five!” Don tries to hide his hand shaking so badly that it looks like he’s sweeping the grass. Elliott grins, but at his own shoes. It’s disrespectful to make fun of guests in Malawi. And Peace Corps Volunteers are considered guests.
“ Bwana, you’ll kill yourself with a machete. Either way you may die!” Then he smiles the Malawi smile that means “just kidding.” Out loud, he says, “ I’ve never missed, Mr. Don. Just be careful when you go inside. I’ll do the rest.”
Don glares at me. “I could be safely in graduate school at Ohio State, studying chemistry. But no. You wanted adventure and to make a difference in the world. Well here goes nothing. Tell my family it was your fault.” And in he marches with his quivering broom.
I hear a loud thump – and the snake’s head emerges again. He’s hissing, striking, stretching his body in thin air, attacking the light he’s so furious. In less than a second, his still-open mouth flies past me. In the next moment, his undulating body follows. I stay on the grass and cry. I want to go back to Ohio State more than anything in the world.
Don, paler than I’ve ever seen him, staggers out slowly, still gripping the broom. He drops on the grass beside me. We both cry. Elliott disappears with the two halves of the snake. He nails both pieces to the khonde (porch). It’s a tradition in Malawi. It shows that there is one less poisonous snake near the village and the people who live in this house are brave.
As the African moon rises, the continent cools down. Families cook supper over open fires, their voices with laughter or anger carry for miles in the stillness of dusk. Don and I get up, still hugging each other, and go in the house. Elliott lights the kerosene lantern and makes us tea as we grade papers.
When the rainy season begins about a month later, the orange curtains I made for our windows are gone, eaten overnight by termites and left in little orange thread piles on the floor. I’ve sat on termites twice while using the one holler at night when I forgot the flashlight. And the Peace Corps Director brought “ the terrible, awful, disgusting blue syrup” for me to drink because I had worms. Other than that, we’re fine. Until we try to start our wood stove with wet wood.
That brings us to our knees just when we felt we knew enough about life chores here to light our stove. We both lie on the cement kitchen floor and moan something like, “So this is how it ends.” Neither of us were scouts and now we rue the summers we spent reading inside instead of building fires in the rain in the woods with other soaked scouts, proving to our leader that we deserved the “Fire Building Badge,” by serving him or her toasted marshmallows in the pouring rain.
We’re scared because we’ve used all of the wet wood we stacked in the corner of the kitchen to dry, and the two boxes of matches the Peace Corps gave us. Without fire to boil our water, we have nothing to drink. The water here must be boiled thirty minutes before it’s safe and uncontaminated. Night settles over our house. We forgot to keep a few matches out to light our kerosene lamp, so now we sit on the kitchen floor in the dark glaring at the stove, willing it to start. It doesn’t.
Finally, we use our flashlights, go to the chimbudzi, and crawl into our twin beds with our clothes on and dream of Columbus, Ohio, where students are in warm dorms and warm classrooms. A part of each of us gives up. We can’t do this. We’ve failed. Why did we think we could live here, in a land where people work so hard just to stay alive? Another small fraction believes that morning will dawn bright and we’ll use part of our monthly allowance to buy dry wood. We’ll survive and possibly even make a difference. Possibly.
“I hear a mouse,” Don whispers.
“Oh, shit. So do I,” I answer.
. “ I’ll go take a look,” he says.
I put the pillow over my head. After snakes, mice are my least favorite animals. From under my pillow I hear a voice in addition to Don’s. Both voices are quiet, calm. They speak in hushed tones, like spies plotting to overthrow a government. They’re in the living room. I dig a nest in my bed, crawl into the center of it. Probably not a good place to hide if there’s been a coup and the villagers are rounding up Peace Corps volunteers to hand over to the army colonels.
If I had any courage I would have at least looked into the living room and the small, attached kitchen, and seen Elliott and Don working side by side. Don’s stuffing twigs and pieces of dry wood that Elliott brought into the stove. Elliott’s blowing on the first tiny flames, rubbing the larger pieces of wood together. They pull each other back as the wood bursts into flame. The fire is hope. It warms the kitchen and my belief that we’ll teach tomorrow and all will be well.
Elliott fills our two enamel pots and puts them on the stove. He warms nsima (something like rice that they eat at every meal) and ndiwo (chicken and vegetables in simmering tomato sauce) that goes with the nsima in two other pots. He alternates the last two pots because we have only three burners, but somehow everything is ready at the same time.
That night, Elliott tells us the secret of starting fires when it rains inside our house. Which it does at the height of the rainy season. The thatch is porous. Elliott, Don and I buy a new plastic bucket each Saturday at the market. Soon, we have ten. When the thatch leaks we place the buckets under the most leaky parts and sit, cook and sleep in the dry areas.
Elliott instructs us on gathering twigs and firewood, wet or dry, and piling it beside the wood stove so it dries faster. He tells us howto use the stovetop and oven. One large stick of blazing hot wood is for warming food we’ve previously cooked. Two large sticks is for making stew on the stovetop and baking bread in the oven. Three large pieces blazing away and we can host a party. We can boil water, cook and bake food for six or more people. Now, we’ve got it.
We make spaghetti the next day. It’s the best spaghetti we’ve ever eaten. We bought two ancient boxes of pasta in a small kandodo (shop). Then we headed for the mid-week market and bought pounds of tomatoes and onions. We cooked them down into a sauce with two sticks of blazing hot wood and poured that over pasta.
We ask Elliott to join us, and put three plates on the table. He declines and sits outside the kitchen waiting to clean up. Don finds him there and in broken Chichewa pleads with him to taste what we’ve made. Elliott laughs and says, “ I don’t eat American food. It looks and smells funny.”
Finally he agrees to come in, sit with us and taste our foreign concoction. He keeps a glass of water close by and tries a tiny portion of spaghetti. He waits for the poison to hit, but when he realizes nothing is happening to him, he tries a slightly bigger helping. The three of us eat together for the first time. Often, after that day, Elliott joins us briefly for a quick supper of “white food,” as he calls it.
Elliott finds a second-hand meat grinder at the market one Saturday and brings it to the house. We give him money to buy it and our lives change again. Now, instead of cooking slabs of quivering beef until it’s tender (all day), Elliott puts the hunk through the meat grinder and ours is the most popular house in the village. We make chili, sloppy joes, hamburgers, meatloaf, and dishes like stuffed peppers. Elliott, the villagers, and our students like the stuffed peppers the best.
The beat of African life is unlike the tempo of living in the States. Chores take longer, bathing and washing clothes in streams with crocodiles is life threatening, traveling seems farther because everyone walks or piles on crowded buses along with live chickens and goats. Some lucky men and women ride their own or borrowed bicycles.
Speaking of which, the Peace Corps issues each of us a bicycle. We don’t have cars. We’re supposed to travel like the Malawians travel. And we try, but the bicycle tires are too thin for the hard, baked ground. I fall off my bike so often; I finally park it on the khonde and walk. I’m safer that way. And my students are happier. They worried I’d break something and not be able to teach them. Examinations are coming up and if they pass all of them they’ll be eligible to teach Elementary School.
An examiner arrives from Blantyre, the capital city, the next week. Our students take the English examination and the Math and Science examinations also. In two weeks the results are posted. Jubilation breaks out in the schoolyard. Ninety five per cent of our students passed. After reading the results, school jackets and ties come off, a soccer (football in Malawi) game starts and they play all afternoon. The teachers bring in food to celebrate. I bake a cake, my cooking’s come a long way, and we congratulate the students on their hard work. Graduating means they earned a certificate that ensures they are able to earn a living in a profession that is looked at with pride. The whole village relaxes. It is the new moon and they sleep the peaceful sleep of the successful.
Don and I are in dreamland with our windows open wide. I wake to a breeze flowing through the room, but a stale smell flows with it. Don wakes, too. He tries to scream as a hand comes in through one of the windows and grazes the top of his head. Nothing comes out of his mouth. He ducks so the hand misses him on its second swipe through the air. He tries to scream again. No luck. Slowly, the hand withdraws from the window. Fear overcomes us and sticks in our throats. The night is as soundless as it is moonless. Neither of us moves.
After a while, we think whoever it was is gone. Only the odd smell lingers. Don sneaks out on the porch. No one is there. But the owner of the arm now owns our bikes. Our porch is spotless. No bikes clutter it.
At dawn, when the villagers awake, they are furious and devastated. They’re certain a gang of professional thieves targeted them. They know which gang it was. It’s an organized group of criminals and rustlers backed by witchcraft. No one will even look for his or her possessions. It’s too dangerous. The thieves took the village’s goatherd. Only the few goats that were sleeping outside of the corral are left. It will take some time for the village to get back on its feet. Don and I think we see various parts of our bikes now and then welded onto other bikes. In a few days some of the goats come wandering back home, but the thieves are never caught.
Don and I sleep with our windows closed until the blistering hot season arrives. Then we open them again. Just partly.
When we return home at the beginning of l967, Don has six weeks to be accepted into graduate school or he’ll be drafted into the Vietnam War. He’s accepted at Michigan State and we’re there within the month. I suffer from counter-culture shock. The Peace Corps prepared us for experiencing different customs and beliefs when we arrived in a third world country. It explained the poverty that would surround us. But it didn’t give us the facts about returning to our homes in the States where even the poorest among us had much more than anyone we knew in Malawi. I was surprised by the abundance of opportunity and the culture of plenty.
I missed my students and friends and the slower pace of village life. I hoped Elliott would show up with some nsima and ndiwo. There were no mango trees to sit under in East Lansing, Michigan. I knew something was off when I remembered fondly the crocodile that lazed in the pathway to the river.
The truth was that in those two years I’d become part of Malawi’s culture. The minute we stepped off the plane and rode the crowded bus to our post at Nkhoma Teacher Training College, we were with our Malawian co-teachers and friends every night and day. We learned to survive in a land of scarcity yet enjoy daily, happy moments with them. We went to one of our student’s weddings. We danced and sang all day at the reception and were coated with dust that took us two days to clean off afterwards. I visited the small Indian community across crocodile river every week where the Indian women taught me to make Samosas with special rolling pins. I still have one. It’s a treasure. Our time in Malawi was a treasure, too.
We stayed in the states until we retired. When Don and I celebrated our 70th birthdays in 2010, we were asked to return to Malawi for a short-term project. We jumped at the chance. How else would we know if we could still light a wood-burning stove with wet wood? We found out we couldn’t. We lived in a district far to the south of where we’d lived in the 60’s. We couldn’t find our old friend, Elliott. Our car leaked more oil than it used and the roads were no better than before. The trip was too long for us to try. We missed thanking him again for his friendship.
On this visit, I work in the villages with my Malawian counterparts, Florence and Catherine. We’re in the secondary school library planning a mosquito net project when a teacher bursts in, and tells us that one of the teachers was killed riding his bicycle to school. A jeep knocked him off his bike and ran over him.
The next day, the driver for the school drives several men, and Catherine, Florence and me to the village where the teacher lived. The men congregate on one side of the village and the women sit under trees on the other side. The sounds of wailing and crying waft like prayers carried in the breezes through the village. We women take turns taking off our shoes and going in and sitting with the young widow. She’s lying on a mat on the hard mud floor of the hut with her face to the wall, nursing her baby and sobbing. I look to the center of the room and see eight pairs of black feet and one pair of white feet. “This is the Peace Corps,” I think. Here in this tiny hut near the town of Mangochi in southern Malawi, Africa. Here I am.
Mangochi is a district where both Muslims and Christians live. The service is held by a Christian minister and then by a Muslim dignitary. A choir sings. The widow’s mother and family bring her out of her hut and help her walk through the dry river beds to the burial site. We all follow. At the gravesite there are more remarks, more wailing and sobbing. Grief sits on our shoulders and pushes us into the ground. It takes my breath away. The gravediggers shovel dirt on to the casket. When it’s almost covered, the procession back to the village begins. The young widow has to be carried.
My friends and I are among the last women back. We hold up our ntenjis (cloth tied around our waists that covers us to our ankles) so it’s easier to walk through the dry crevices in the earth. The gravediggers, in bare feet, with their shovels over their shoulders, follow behind us. The sun is unmercifully hot, but we make it back to our place under the trees and sit and mourn in the dirt.
At dusk, as we drive out of the village, I know I won’t attend a village wake and burial again. I’m glad I was here to pay my respects, to give my condolences, to sit in their hut. Glad that the one pair of white feet were mine. Perhaps, it helped her in some way to have a white woman from America say she was sorry for her loss and spend the day with the other women caring for her.
We live in a larger thatch roofed home closer to Lake Malawi on this visit. The Lake had two names at one time. Wikipedia tells how David Livingstone named it Lake of the Stars when he first saw it in l859. It was from the lanterns on the fishermen’s boats flickering at night on the lake that reminded him of stars in the sky. It was also named Lake of Storms. Appropriately. We are here again in the rainy season, but this time the storms wail through our house and the lightening seems inside the bedroom with us.
One of the larger leaks in the thatch is above Don’s side of the bed. He wakes, surprised, the first time a drop splats on his forehead. Now, when a big drop hits, he nudges me. We climb out from under the mosquito net tucked in around the bed, shove the bed to a drier section of the bedroom, put a bucket under the leak, and climb back in bed again. We think the storm will never stop and we’ll never sleep, but we wake to bird song, sunshine, and maize two inches taller because of the rain. I swear.
I stay home the day after the storm, which is also the day after the funeral. The home we are renting has levered windows throughout. They are filthy. Spiders and small lizards live in them. And, there are anemic tiny frogs that live in our inside toilets, too. But that’s another story. At least five-year old dust clings to the windows. Michael Patrick, the father of five, who rides his bike five miles each way to work for us each day, and I decide to clean the windows.
He runs water from the outside spigot into a large plastic basin. I swish in the dry soap powder. We each have two rags. One to wash. One to dry. We clean the living room windows for two hours. The windows shine. We’re filthy. Michael makes tea, which takes the usual thirty minutes, and I find some bread and honey. We sit on the khonde and eat lunch. We watch the Hammerkop, a large long legged South African bird whose head looks like a hammer, peck thatch from our roof to build its nest that’s just about as big as our house. We laugh. He’s taking thatch from right above Don’s side of the bed.
“This is my wonderful,” Michael says. “No one ever worked with me before. They told me what to do, but didn’t work with me.”
“It’s my wonderful, too.” I say, holding back tears. “We’re friends. We work together.”
It’s 2012 and we’re back in the States again. I often think of Elliott Malabo and Michael Patrick. They are what Malawi means to my life. We still have the teakettle from Elliott and the memory of walking forever to meet Michael Patrick’s wife and children. We are friends. And if peace is related to friendship, then there is peace among us. We were friends the moment we met, and trust grew without us knowing it from that moment.
On that vast continent of Africa, where herds of Bull Elephants thunder through the savannah, we shared stories of Ohio, 8,000 miles away, while tasting barbecued bat in Elliott’s home.
The Malawi drums and masks are in our basement along with a straw broom, like the one Don used to clear the Kalikwikiw out of the chimbudzi and my wash rag from cleaning windows with Michael Patrick. They are reminders of how much we can learn from others. How much we have in common. How much we are alike. We went to Malawi as teachers, but we knew as soon as we arrived that we were students. And then friends. It worked out perfectly.
’12 Memoirs Contest
My Thing: A Year in Psychosis
By Eugene Uttley
In the years building toward the great millennial fin de siecle, I gave up on the pale, plotless novel I'd been working on since college, pitched my manual typewriter into the back of a buddy's van, and rode from my home state of Indiana up to Alaska, pounding out the poetry of the road all the way west and north and north, north even of Fairbanks by a hundred miles of gravel to a hot springs resort, where I whiled a couple of winters away sitting at the front desk of a grand old four-story hotel, room and board provided, which made seven an hour go a long way, but eventually I knew I had to reach for a bigger slice of the pie, so I applied to the university down in the city for a place in their Master of Arts in Literature program – shooting for my long-held dream of a comfy tenure at some small school somewhere – and they accepted me, floated me a loan and set me up as a teacher's assistant with a stipend for instructing a composition course in addition to my own classwork and independent study, so when y2k came there I was ensconced in the ivory tower of academia.
By my second semester of teaching composition and getting a feel for departmental politics, plus the pressure voraciously to consume, produce and publish scholarly work, I came to understand that the comfy tenure I longed for would be hard-won and would involve more vigorous churning of the intellectual butter than I had suspected, a realization which led me to discontinue my studies and cast about for some means of supporting myself, not to mention paying off my loans, whereupon I acted on a long-held desire to go abroad, got myself a passport and secured a contract to teach English as a Second Language in a little after-school academy in the city of Ulsan, South Korea, which, upon arrival a quick half-year later on the far side of the globe, I found to be a demanding but entirely doable job of work for an agreeably sizable chunk of pay, and I stayed on there one full contract year, schooling the kiddies on their ABC's, persons, places, things, and actions, and so forth, and meeting, in my spare time, a most appealing and intriguing young Canadian woman, with whom I struck up a romance.
Having paid my dues that first year in Ulsan, I moved on in the next to new environs – a gorgeous, subtropical, volcanic island off the south coast of the Korean mainland – and set up shop working for the government, teaching in various public schools and tutoring the public school teachers too, for a better wage and a more commodious apartment, to which well-twigged nest I soon invited my Canadian love and where, she deigning to join me and finding work in a nearby academy, we proceeded to co-habitate quite happily for round about three years, becoming increasingly adept as teachers, which made the going ever easier, and living in love with one another and with the island, its many beaches and hikeable mountains, deep forests and hidden-valley waterfalls, open-air markets and endless variety of restaurants, lively friends from several countries, a little car soon for me, a scooter for her, the whole island our oyster and all manner of laughter shared... but by that brightness a shadow was cast and grew: a creeping sense I had of being watched – monitored by the military perhaps...
The summer of my fourth year on the island, I lost my Canadian love; meanwhile, my paranoia grew stronger, the episodes of feeling watched more frequent and acute, and I began to imagine stranger explanations for the sensation than military monitoring – super-spies and wealthy celebrities, space-aliens and angels – such that as I stood teaching before a class of thirty middle-schoolers, I fantasized that I was under consideration for induction into an ultra-secret group, as a part of which I would help to save the world, which was, it began to seem to me, in some kind of dire jeopardy, these thoughts coming and going in long waves, with lulls of normalcy in between, but the waves piling higher and whiter-capped with madness until one day at the very end of the term as I drove my little car down to the sea, I heard the voice of a woman speak inside my head: “Let's see what his thing will be.”
My thing? My thing? What could it mean? My superpower maybe? What would I choose? As I pondered this thought, I arrived at the little beach and saw that it was heavily strewn with trash washed up by the tide. In a flash, I understood that my thing meant my cause – the wrong I would focus my powers on righting – and I saw that my cause would be pollution. Hearing the woman's voice inside my head meant that I had been accepted at last by the secret society which had been watching me. I would help save the world! I was elated. In the days that followed I heard a few more voices. Their words were confusing – abstract and cryptic – and I interpreted them as psychic communiques from the group of which I was now a part. Learning to decipher them would take time, I thought.
With the end of the term came the long winter break, and I decided at the last minute on a trip to North America – first to Indiana for the Christmas holiday, then out to the West Coast to visit friends from Alaska days, and finally up to Vancouver, BC to spend a little time with an old college buddy. Throughout these travels, I was delusional and manic. My family and friends, I later found out, suspected me of being on drugs. The conviction that I was receiving psychic messages and helping to save the world grew more convincing day by day, and by the time I arrived back in South Korea, my understanding of the voices I was hearing had become more sophisticated. Some of the voices were from my fellow do-gooders, while some were from the military, some from angels, some from outer space, and some from sources of questionable intent. These last would grow stronger in the weeks to come, criticizing and ridiculing me, encouraging me to make poor decisions, threatening to control me and make me do bad things. One night, I resolved I would kill myself before being used for evil.
In this state of psychosis, I traveled from my little island to Seoul. I had been asked by a friend who owned and operated a successful tourist attraction – a tall, spooky, beautiful topiary labyrinth – to help represent his 'maze park' at a tourism expo in a vast conference room in the biggest mall in Seoul. For a week of days, I touted the labyrinth, handing out brochures and post cards to a steady stream of interested Koreans. And in that week of nights, I hung out in nightclubs and bars, certain that some of the other patrons knew who I was, that with my dawning psychic powers came a certain level of fame or notoriety. After drinks, manic and disinhibited, I began singing in the street. I sang snatches of different songs and added lines of my own, rhyming and free-associating, making what's known in psychiatric circles as 'word salad.' By the end of the week, I was doing this nightly – fancying myself an artist, a street performer. Between lines from songs, I ranted about being watched, daring those who were monitoring me to come out into the open. I also became political, raving about human rights, especially in North Korea, and also taking my own government to task for playing world police.
When the tourism expo ended, I collected a boxful of leftover brochures and posters, postcards and coupons, took them back to my motel room and began to make collages. While I went nuts with scissors and tape, creating huge mosaics of images and words, I carried on singing and rhyming and prosthelytizing. I did this all night and the next day collected more materials, including rubbish from the streets, and pulled another manic all-nighter. The next term was to begin the next day, yet I was still in Seoul. I caught the last possible flight back to the island. I drank scotch on the flight, and my symptoms flared up. Upon arrival, I experienced constant, loud, commanding and degrading voices. I fled the airport, luggage in tow. A 'friendly' voice told me to go to the sea and I would be aided in defending myself against the negative voices. I went to the seaside.
“Now jump in and swim,” said the 'friendly' voice. Tortured by the negative voices, hoping for help from the positive forces with which I was allied, I tore off my shirt, tucked my passport into my jeans, and swam out into the cold, February sea.
The negative voices faded as I swam further out.
“If you can get to international waters, we can pick you up,” said the 'friendly' voice. It was slow-going in my jeans, and awfully cold. Just as my strength was giving out, a small fishing boat came along. I hauled myself up into it and huddled shivering while the fisherman took me to shore. Surprisingly, an ambulance was waiting for me there. The EMTs laid me down on a stretcher and swaddled me with blankets. At the hospital, I was allowed to rest and warm up. Military voices came to me, telling me to be still and obey the doctors. I didn't trust them, so I jumped up and ran out of the hospital. Orderlies tried to restrain me, but I got away and marched toward my apartment. Halfway there I realized I didn't have my keys and also that I had lost my passport in the sea. I managed to get to the apartment of a friend who had a spare key to my place, made it home and realized that I was supposed to be teaching that day. As I sat down and wrote a letter of resignation, malicious laughter rang in my head.
In the week that followed, I kept up appearances enough to get help from several friends in moving all of my possessions from the apartment into a friend's spare room. Telling everyone I would be back soon, I left for Seoul, determined to get a new passport from the US consulate there. I was out of cash and living on credit cards. Arriving in the city on a Saturday, I had a couple of days to kill before the consulate would be open. I went to an ancient art district called Insadong and spent the afternoon visiting art galleries. Again I felt that some of the people around me knew all about my situation, and that some of them were there to check me out. With difficulty, I repressed the urge to sing and rhyme and rant. Instead, I loitered near a small park at one end of the main street of galleries. A man came out of the park and walked up to me. “Chunsa!” he cried, as if greeting an old friend. My grasp of the Korean language was poor, but I knew that word. Chunsa means 'angel'.
The man had shoulder-length hair and a goatee, and he wore a jacket with patches on the elbows. He took me by the arm and pulled me into the park, where he served me a shot of soju. I served him a shot back, as is customary, and he spoke to me at length in fast, incomprehensible Korean. I believed that he knew all about my psychic powers and my difficulties and was encouraging me not to give up. He took me to a small restaurant down the street, told me to wait there, and left. I ordered a traditional tea and sat thinking about his name for me. Chunsa... I remembered my pledge to fight pollution. I had been neglecting that mission. As I finished my tea, he returned, but I couldn't believe my eyes: he was a different man from the one who had just left. His posture had sagged into that of an old man, his head rolled on his limp neck, and a stream of mucus flowed from his nose into his beard. I jumped to my feet and wiped his face with a napkin. “Chunsa,” he slurred, over and over. As I walked him back to the park, it occurred to me that he had probably just shot up some heroin.
Depositing my friend in the park, I spent the rest of the evening cleaning up rubbish. Some other men in the park laughed at my efforts as I bent to pick up their cigarette butts and discarded bottles and food wrappings. They gave me shots of soju and I started to sing and rave. One of my political notions was that my country needed a third party. Since the Democrats were blue and the Republicans red, this third party would be the combination of the two: purple. “Purple party, people's party, Purple Rain, people reign, so says the Insadong Chunsa, wear purple if you feel my pain...” and on and on I ranted, and began to call out to passers-by who were wearing purple clothing, complimenting them and singing to them, convinced that they knew about me and were showing support for me. Night came and I rented a motel room. Several of my credit cards were maxed out, I discovered, but I found one that worked. I was sure my room was bugged, audio and video, and I huddled in the bed, my pleasant mania giving way to fear and derisive voices.
The next day I spent in the park and up and down the street of galleries, picking up trash and singing and ranting. The man who had dubbed me Chunsa showed up around noon, good as new, and took me to a different restaurant, where we were joined by a man I recognized. He was a shaman I had seen perform at a rally a couple years before. We ate well and drank bowl after bowl of milky rice wine, and my friend got worked up, ranting about something political, free trade, I think, and the World Trade Organization. He began pointing at me angrily and shaking his fist in my face. He is angry with America, I thought, and taking it out on me. A great wave of impotent sadness came over me, and I began to cry. I cried for my lost girlfriend and job and possessions, for all the abuse I was taking from the voices in my mind... surprised, my friend knocked over a bowl of wine. A thick white puddle covered the table. I reached out, and with one finger, drew a circle in the puddle. Inside the circle, I wrote WWIII – World War III – and then I struck a line through it. I felt like I was sending a message of peace through the shaman to the powers that be. Then I left the restaurant, still in tears.
The next morning, I went to the consulate, only to find that it was closed on Mondays. Not feeling like returning to Insadong, I went instead to the shopping district near the US Army Base. It was cold, and I needed a coat. The coat I bought that day was ludicrous. It was black and red leather, like Michael Jackson's jacket in Thriller, and on the back was emblazoned a huge, ornate Indian chief. It was thick and warm and looked like I felt. That afternoon, sitting on a corner stoop, I played street prophet again, singing and rhyming and calling out to my purple people. As night came on, I went into a few hiphop clubs, where I sat alone and made up my own raps to the beats they were playing. Certain people who came and went were there to catch a glimpse of me. Everybody wearing purple was showing support of me and my cause. I collected some flyers and magazines, picked up some trash from the gutter, charged a nice hotel room to the card and made collages all night.
The next day I wore my fancy new coat down to the US Consulate. I told them my passport had been 'lost or stolen', and they said they could give me an emergency replacement; I just needed about eighty bucks cash. But I had no cash. I'll be back, I told them, and went to find a bank that would give me a cash advance on one of my credit cards. After several banks and phone calls to several card companies, I gave up. No cash. No passport. Also, no more hotel rooms. That night I slept in the subway with several other homeless people. They were probably psychic superheroes like me, saving the world. The next day I went back to the park in Insadong, cleaned up the rubbish and rapped and riffed. A well-dressed woman came up to me with a frown on her face and told me in English that I should do something with my big backpack and shoulder-bag, that I shouldn't have them in the park. I told her I had nowhere to put them, and she suggested I put them in a locker in the subway. I have no money for a locker, I said, and she scowled and gave me a couple of small bills. So I went down into the subway and stashed my bags, then came back to the park, drank soju with the men there and ate some bread that one guy got from behind a bakery. That night I slept in the street, my back against the concrete outer wall of a gallery I liked. I'm art, I thought.
A week passed like that – manic and mouthy, eating very little and sleeping in the street. I went back to the subway lockers to get my luggage, but couldn't get the machine to open my locker door. I asked a guard for help, but he couldn't get it open either. I went to the customer service desk and they gave me the international sign for “can’t help you.” So I gave up. I was down to the clothes on my back. Unable to afford bus fare, I walked across the city from the district around the US Base to the art district and back. The time period allotted to me to leave the country expired, and I was an illegal alien. One night, cold and hungry, I tried to turn myself in at a police station. I showed them the paper that ordered me to leave the country by a date now passed. They just laughed nervously and told me to take a hike. The next day I went to the consulate and begged for funds to get the emergency passport. They said no such funds were available and recommended that I try asking for help at a church or temple. I went to a temple and was fed delicious noodles, but I couldn't bring myself to ask for money. I just went back to the park, back to drinking soju with my homeless friends and eating what little snacks they gave me. Another week passed.
I went back to the consulate, told them I was desperate, and showed them the paper that proved I was an illegal alien. They told me to remain calm or I would receive no help. I was taken aback – what made them think I wouldn't be calm? Maybe they had seen me ranting in the streets, or were reacting to my outrageous coat. I was ushered into a little room and given a special form to fill out. The form asked me why I had overstayed my visa and I wrote “Fugue state not caused by alcohol or drugs.” That was as close as I had come to admitting something was wrong with me. The consulate officials telephoned my family in the US and arranged for a wire transfer of funds to be used for the emergency replacement passport and a plane ticket out of Korea. While I waited the few days for my flight out, staying in a hostel near the consulate, I made one last appearance in the park in Insadong and used the pocket money I'd been given to buy soju and snacks for the guys. My friend who called me chunsa was there, and when I told him I was leaving the next day, he made his hands into a bird flapping its wings. Fly, fly away, he said.
I flew into Detroit, then boarded a commuter flight to Evansville, Indiana. The little plane was diverted to St. Louis because of a storm. Of course, I thought the rerouting had to do with me. Seated beside me was an older gentleman. He was wearing an amethyst ring. Purple. He asked me what I did, and I told him I’d been teaching abroad.
“What do you see yourself getting into now?”
I thought about that. Before he started up the conversation, I’d been thinking about the actor Bill Murray, about some of his great roles: the willfully impoverished seeker of truth in The Razor’s Edge, the noncomformist slacker with rhythm in Stripes, the cynic trapped in time in Groundhog Day who learns to devote himself to helping others, and the alienated celebrity in Lost in Translation…
“I think I might try to find Bill Murray,” I told the man with the amethyst ring.
“Hmm,” he replied, “Well Bill Murray might not be going where you’re going.”
What an enigmatic statement! I’ve puzzled over it ever since.
I’d like to say I sought help right away upon arriving in the USA, but the truth of the matter is that I continued in psychosis all the rest of that year, driving around the country in a borrowed truck, singing and rapping and riffing, conversing in my head with all manner of entities and convinced most of the time I was saving the world. Returning the truck, I traveled by bus and rental car across the whole continent to the West Coast, intent on connecting with the Alaskan friend I’d visited there the winter before. When I arrived in his town, I found he had moved and left no forwarding address. I returned the rental car and walked the streets. A couple of days later, I lost my wallet: my ID, cash, and all my credit cards except for one. Without ID, I wasn’t able to travel by plane or by bus, or to rent a car or a hotel room. I found myself living in the streets for weeks, as I had in Seoul. Then by a stroke of luck I found my friend. He helped me get on my feet again and I rented a room and holed up for a couple of months doing mental exercises, repeating certain expressions to myself like mantras to drown out the voices in my head. I am learning and healing, I told myself over and over again.
I acknowledged then that I had a problem, and that the voices were all coming from my subconscious, rather than from outside myself. I went through the red tape of getting an ID card, after which I could travel again and flew back to Indiana. Settling down in my old college town, I got a job at a motel and finally went to a mental health clinic and told them my story. The nurses and doctors I opened up to were flabbergasted – a whole year in psychosis! I’ve been stable on medication these five years since then, holding my little motel job and, most recently, taking courses at the community college.
In closing, I’ll share a little mantra I still use today:
“One being becoming more fully aware of being one.”