Tharp On: Love
We are here. We have survived. After the cruelest winter in nearly one-hundred years, spring has finally staggered onto the Peninsula. The sun slices through the haze of toxic Chinese dust just enough to warm our insides and change the ajummas’ perpetual scowls into mild frowns; punishing Siberian winds have been exchanged for soft ocean breezes; the emergence of the world’s best cherry blossoms draw more people than a free Stones concert in Japan, and young lovers stroll side-by-side along “aromatic” river banks, thinking about holding hands.
My first girl in Korea was tall and cool, with sleek black hair and a fondness for blue eye shadow. I met her just one week after being in country and couldn’t believe my luck. She introduced me to Korea, acting as a both tour guide and interpreter, and to this day I owe her a debt of gratitude.
It wasn’t all bliss, however. I soon discovered that she was an expert nagger, digging at me at every chance she could. Her favorite target being my ever-bloating gut, the result of a Cass binge that began my first hour in the country and, sadly, continues to this day.
“You have a big pot belly!” she’d admonish. “Why you have such big pot belly?”
“Uh, I don’t know, I just drink too much beer,” I’d weakly reply.
“You should stop eating dinner.”
Let’s be clear here: She wasn’t suggesting that I skip dinner that night, but rather that I give it up altogether. Can you imagine that? Giving up dinner? What would I say to my friends?
“Hey Chris. You wanna come grab a bite with us?”
“Sorry, guys. I can’t do it. I quit. I quit dinner. I’m on the dinner wagon. I’m in dinner recovery.”
We eventually parted ways and I got together with a wispy, red-haired English girl. I loved her and she loved me, only hers was the kind of love that evaporated every time I left the room. She finally evaporated out of the country, and again I was alone. Cue violins.
Next in line was another Korean girl. She was tiny and adorable, with bobbed hair and big, forever blinking eyes. On our first date we walked and held hands. At one point she turned to me, smiled, and said: “I love you, Chris!”
I was trapped. Here I was, on a side street near the main gate of Pusan National University, standing in front of a restaurant that specialized in BOTH coffee and spaghetti. What could I do but clear my throat and say:
“Uh… I love you… too… Bo-ra.”
I have been in relationships for more than a year without uttering those three fateful words, yet there I was, spitting them out on the first date. Dating Hello Kitty incarnate will do that to a man. Hello, Asia.
What I soon also realized was this: Little Bo-ra spoke no English – almost none. I couldn’t speak Korean, so what could we talk about? It was like dating a blow-up doll that required taxi fare. She was a master of the text message, however, and it didn’t take long before I was inundated.
“chris. u handsome.” (heart heart star heart triangle-eyed happy face)
“chris. where meet?” (star spiral heart heart winking kitten)
“chris. i miss you.” (spiral star heart heart upside down crying hedgehog)
The bits of English I could make out — but the codes? They were indecipherable, a gobbledygook of cute symbols, animals, and emoting faces. It was like some kind of Korean girl hieroglyphics, only I lacked the Kimchi stone.
The final text message I received needed no explanation, however. At 4:30 a.m. my sad phone buzzed, delivering the following missive:
“chris. i sorry. we have breakup.”
Live by the text message, die by the text message.
Now I am older — 40 years old — and wiser, yet still unmarried. Sometimes, when drinking with older Korean men, the subject comes up, causing them to suffer near-aneurysms. Their faces tremble and a frothy mixture of dong dong ju and spittle forms in the corners of their gasping mouths:
“But why? Why aren’t you married?? (shaking head) You must-uh!! You must-uh marry!!!” (slamming hand on table)
“I will, I will,” I assure them.
“But when? When???” they invariably ask, not even inquiring if I have anyone in mind yet.
Here’s where I pause, respectfully fill their bowl with more rice wine, and calmly state:
“Next spring, here in Korea, under the shroud of the world’s best cherry blossoms.”
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