MADISON – IT WAS EIGHT DEGREES OUTSIDE. Fahrenheit. The briskness of the wind was enough to cut me down. But I shuffled along the street, rice wine and Korean blood sausage tucked into my bag, en route to a friends’ apartment – where we would probably sit and commiserate over how goddamned cold it was.
Hanju greeted me at the door. Up in his overwarm apartment I shed a few layers: coat, undercoat, sweater, thermal. His brother JJ was at the computer in the midst of an Internet video chat with their father. “Hey,” he called out to me, “Want to say hi to my dad?”
A bit taken aback, I sat down, put on the headphones and faced a shifting image of an elder Korean man. I bowed gently in the direction of the camera. Ahnyonghaseyo! I greeted him. He cracked a smile, and we began to talk about, of all things, the weather. For someone like myself who grew up with the Internet, it felt surprisingly strange to be shooting the breeze, face-to-face with someone who was thousands of miles away.
The night rolled on and and the rice wine – makuhlli – flowed in our bowls (out of which the drink is traditionally taken). Hanju and I assessed the quality of the sausage (soondae), which was bought in Chicago; it was O.K., edible at least, but nothing compared with our memories of Seoul street vendors. JJ came out of his room and sat down looking haggard; he stole a swig from Hanju’s dish.
There had been a few words between him and his father. JJ, after a year of paying tuition and busting his ass trying to make grades at the university, had not made it into the business school. His plans were unraveling, and he was having doubts about what he was even doing in America.
As JJ stared into his bowl, his brother nodded in sympathy. Just a few weeks earlier Hanju had expressed similar sentiments – his English, he said, wasn’t getting much better. He wondered if at this point he ought to just go back, finish his degree in finances and start making money. But his thoughts had tumbled down a well; would doing so make him happy?
So there we all sat, mulling over pork and the directions of our lives. Despite all their doubts, I just couldn’t believe that my friends’ time spent here in Wisconsin had been a waste – any more than my time in Korea had been. It terms of credits and degrees, my experiences abroad had gotten me nowhere special, and had certainly set me back a bit financially. But in terms of developing my sense of self and determining the course of my life, the value of those times was immeasurable; traveling was a pressure cooker for my personal enrichment.
I turned to Hanju. “This is the time to question things,” I said.
He nodded, and we all shared another drink.