Tharp On: Leaving

When I first came to Korea, I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This is truly awesome, I thought. I loved it so much that I’d have regular nightmares about going home. There I’d be stumbling off a plane in America, suddenly gripped around the neck by the scaly, clawed hand of a demonic, glowing-eyed immigration officer, who’d lift me from the ground, open his reeking, sulfurous maw and bellow:

YOU, WORM.  BACK TO THE TEMP AGENCY!Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!I’d wake up, heart pounding, and covered in sweat. It was only a dream, I’d think, emitting a sigh and looking over the reassuring environs of my one-room apat-uh. It was only a dream. I’m still in Korea. Thank, God.Many years have passed since then, and while the honeymoon period is definitely over, I still love living here, despite any inconveniences, shortcomings, or flare-ups of anti-Americanism (not to mention flare-ups of burning ass due to too much pepper paste).
Koreans often ask me, When are you going back to America?, as if I’ve set an arbitrary date to pack my bags and skedaddle, to which I never have an adequate answer.
Sometimes I tell them what may be the truth:  I’m never going home. I will stay here forever, which elicits a variety of responses, the most common being a cocktail of dumbstruck awe, pity, and deep sadness. Sometimes I can even hear the fissures crackling in their skulls, the tell-tale sign of a head about to implode.
I really have no plans to leave this place. I’m not saying that it will never happen, but it’s not an active concern. I actually try not to think about it, since the concept itself disturbs me deep in my bowels. This is the truth. I hate it when anyone leaves Korea. It’s something that should never happen. It really, really bums me out. Sometimes, an old-time expat friend will approach me with a graven, somber face, sit me down and say:You know, Tharp, there comes a time for all of us to move on. That time for me is now. I’m leaving Korea and going home. Time to get on with real life.… to which I can only reply:Why???? Don’t leave. Please, please, stay. No one should ever leave. Ever. Really, there’s nothing out there for you. Look!, I say waving towards the black night sky, it’s just a void.This is especially true for my fellow Americans, who foolishly head back to a country burning on the inside and unraveling at the seams. I was just there last summer and can attest to how dysfunctional the place is. Everyone hates each other and except for the uber-wealthy, almost no one has any money. Over half of all the people I met were on parole and knew much more about pepper spray than pepper paste. It’s a nice place to visit, but after each successive trip home, I slap my own back and congratulate myself once again for coming to Korea in the first place.Living as an expat for so long can cause you to lose all perspective. We lifers begin to experience time differently. What used to be a year for me is now only about three and half weeks (I worked it out).  Einstein’s theory of relativity now makes sense: Times slows down at both the speed of light and the speed of Hite. This is especially true when I go back home, where my friends’ babies are now writing smart phone apps and plotting school shootings. Have I been here this long?

This time warp exists on the peninsula as well. Case in point: Newbie going-away-parties. If you haven’t been here for at least 17 years, don’t invite me to your going-away party. Your sojourn is not even on the radar. To think that I am flooded with these events each week on Facebook:

Ashlee’s Going Back to Canada! Come See Her Off in Style!

Ashlee’s going back to Canada? I didn’t realize she even got here…  Oh… wait, yeah… now I remember. Didn’t I meet her last night at Ol’ 55? We talked for five minutes, did a couple JagerBombs, and then I went home, passed out, woke up, took a crap, and now she’s gone. Time sure flies when you’re wasting your life away in a foreign land.

Am I jaded? Sure, but it’s more a survival mechanism than anything else. Sometimes I feel like the grizzled old sergeant from those old World War II movies. The newly arrived expats are like the fresh-faced private, asking for advice:

Say, Sarge. I don’t want ya to think I’m yellow, but I’m feelin’ a little funny inside. Do ya think I’m gonna get it? Do ya think I’m gonna catch a bullet from Jerry?

How should I know, kid? I’ve seen so many of you green recruits come through this platoon that I stopped  countin’. I don’t even learn your names. You’re just a number to me — nothin’ more. Keep your butt down and your mouth shut and you might make it through this thing… but I wouldn’t count on it.

Cut to the end of the film. The young private, now a corporal, arrives in New York harbor and is reunited with his beautiful bride. He swings her around and gives her a victory kiss. The camera pans out. Where’s the old sergeant? Cut to a shallow, unmarked grave, somewhere in Belgium…

You can get Tharp’s book ‘Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea’ on Amazon or

Steve Feldman’s review of the book is here and more of Tharp’s Haps stuff here.

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Illustration by  Sarah Elminshawi. You can see more of Sarah’s work here:

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