My new housemate is a very peculiar character who is just begging to be dissected – sorry, described. The man is at least 30 – his age is ‘secret’ – has a degree in accountancy yet has never had a job, and spends all day in his tiny apartment with his psychologically unstable dog, doing absolutely nothing. The only time he’s ever left the house is when he met me at the bus stop at our first meeting. His sole point and purpose in life is preparing for the civil service exam in March. To this end he’s abandoned all friendships and sits alone studying. He’s even bought a new mobile so he can’t be contacted by those bothersome friends of his.
The problem is I’ve never actually seen him sit down and do anything academic. When I ask him how his study is going, he grins weakly and trails off on another subject. He spends most of his time cooking, cleaning and doing an endless amount of washing – yet he always wears the same ragged shorts and pastel shirts. On the weekends he wears a horrid green triangular-patterned shirt that belongs in that peculiar fashion graveyard of the early 90s where foul things of the late 80s came to linger and then die. When I come home from work early, he’s generally wearing a bathrobe, even at midday. And the dog is always by his side, barking at every movement I make.
A hundred years ago you’d call him a ‘monomaniac,’ someone fixed totally on one desire to the point of madness – the civil service exam. But he doesn’t really do anything, and that’s the frustrating thing. Sometimes I feel like screaming at him ‘what do you actually do all day!?’ Secretly, deep down, I really want the heavens to open up and pour through our wall-papered ceiling one day, whereupon the heavenly hosts will convene a golden court, calling upon my housemate to justify his existence before the angels, saints, me, and the bloody dog. But that’s absurd and it’s not my place, even if his mother pays his rent while I get up at 5:30 to work everyday and don’t get home til evening.
To balance this account I should describe my housemate’s many wonderful qualities. He is kind and deeply generous in a genuine but slightly excessive way that is common in Koreans inexperienced in dealing foreigners. He won’t let me wash up, for example, and occasionally washes my clothes for me. He means well, but it’s all too much. Once he brought me a glass of milk as I was going to bed!
These qualities – and because he tries very hard to chat to me even though most of his English sentences are about as successful as the Indonesian space program – have endeared him to me immensely. Sometimes you meet people so bizarre or fascinating you want to collect them in jars and store them in your memory, and my housemate is one such person. Actually, picturing him encased fetus-like in a brown formaldehyde-filled jar, gazing owlishly out at me with confused, kind intentions, is not hard to imagine.
I probably sound like a gigantic bastard for writing about a fellow human being in this way, but writing calls for honesty, bugger the niceties. I feel sad for the guy too. He carries inside him the potential for immense, world-shattering kindness, if he can ever find a place outside in the wide mad world. But if he fails that exam in March, he’ll probably throw himself into the Han river. It happens a lot more than you’d think in this country.