The cleaners changed the chemicals for the bathroom, and when I walked in I found myself awash with melancholy. I remembered the same smell from 10 years ago. It was the same chemical smell of sterilization that softly wafted through the Post Exchange at Camp Casey in South Korea. In that moment I was flooded with memories of shopping there, a welcome respite with rare access to things like chocolate peanut butter cups and decent cheese. In recent years, such delicacies are becoming more commonly found in Seoul neighborhoods, but back then we were helping give other expats access to their fix of sour pickles and flaming hot cheetos.
I don’t know what made me feel so sad. It seems like those times, both times, in Korea I was a mix of stress and anxiety for different reasons. In my first stint in Korea, I spent 6 hours a day in transit, to and from work at a school in the neighboring province. With the exception of my ex, I would have no one to talk to for the entire day. My interactions would be limited to the broken exchanges of my curious students, occasional kind strangers on the metro, and the music in my earbuds. I was fortunate to make a few friends, but circumstances zapped them out of my life as quickly as they came in.
When the weekend came, it was my chance to mingle somewhere where I could eavesdrop on conversations and ask confidently for directions. I’d walk to the army post, pass through the gates with my spouse ID, then head past the office buildings and post office to get into the Commissary. I’d have to present my ID again for access to the imported goods. My favorite thing to buy was cheddar goldfish crackers. I could eat so many of those in one sitting. I would take a huge carton home to last a week or two, knowing I wouldn’t be able to find them anywhere else. Each week was a precise list, a particular path, and a predictable exchange with the cashiers that reminded me of something so mundane and yet needed; a familiar routine.
I had to get a taxi back, naturally, as I couldn’t carry everything. Then I had to go, bit by bit, taking the bags to the elevator, and again to the door. My apartment was on the 4th floor. For me, everything in Korea was on that level. Four is a number that sounds like the Korean word for death, so the locals they figured if they assigned all the hotels and buildings with 4 to a foreigner, the reach of the superstition would cease. However, I don’t think I was immune to that omen.
I remember it so clearly, the labels and prices in US dollars, the times I’d wander to the food court for a grilled sandwich or Burger King, the cheap hair salon where they butchered my hair, the bus station that took me to my Zumba classes. It was the time where I was surrounded by familiar things: clothes in my size, Jack Daniels, beef jerky. It was familiar, but still lonely. It was adequate, but still incomplete. So many times we would come to look at the pet store, with little gerbils and hamsters. We looked at stationary, customized pens and leather jackets. It was a cacophony of merchandise in those shops, and yet we always returned there for something.
The second time, since we lived further away, I would just ask my ex to pick up a few things since he had a car. More often then not, though, I would end up buying a handful of snacks on the way home at a local market or go out to eat, avoiding the need to cook, and then wash up after. We had conflicting work schedules, so I tended to eat dinner at work while he foraged for something in the house. As a result, I didn’t so much plan weekly meals as much as got things I could easily box together and take to work. Having more connections in the city and a better idea of what to get where, the need for the PX drifted away and became a hazy memory. I was distant from my ex and even further from the draw of Army life and American comforts. I had enough on my own.
In nature, animals are always drawn to a watering hole, some source of sustenance. This is why parties end up with everyone in a kitchen and office gossip gathers at the water cooler. When I was bored, lonely, or hungry, I would go to this facade of America and make do with the sustenance it gave me, whether it was an English trash magazine or a bottle of Dr. Pepper. It was a bandaid over a growing wound. A wound with depth I couldn’t realize until the smell of the bathroom cleaner nudged it, making it bleed through the gauze just a bit.