Five Precepts Blues; #4.2 – The Signifyin’ Monkey/avoiding harsh speech

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Snatch and the Poontangs – The Signifyin’ Monkey

Tonight, on the eve of Buddha’s Birthday, I’m reminded of two years ago, on the same eve, when the Karma of my actions dropped a great big rotten lemon in our doorway.

We’d been living in our apartment for a few months, and over that span, about three or four times a day a strong stench of cigarette smoke would come wafting into our room from the toilet vent. It would start around 9am and repeat until 4am some nights.

I’m really bothered by cigarette smoke on any day, but EunBong was pregnant with Fina at the time, and even just that it was invading my home was really upsetting me. I’d begun speaking into the vent, in Korean, “Please don’t smoke here.” but when that didn’t work I became increasingly strong with my speech, devolving to ‘Stop smoking!” (not using polite speech in Korean is taken as being very rude), to eventually stomping on the floor, shouting, “Jukgeullae? Shibal Kaesaekki!” (Do you want to die? F’in’ dog baby!” The worst insult I knew how to say in Korean, there’s probably something worse, but that’s a pretty bad one…) I wouldn’t have yelled that in English, but somehow, swearing in another language didn’t seem as bad, though in cultural context, it was much worse! I’d begun to wonder if anyone could even hear me, because after three and a half months of pleading, there hadn’t been any change, though I suspected several people could have heard me!

That night, I came home from work, stayed up a bit too late writing a post about it being Buddha’s birthday in the morning, then was just about ready to turn off the light and go to bed when at 3am our intercom started buzzing, and there was a 40-something year old Korean man’s face swaying back and forth in the screen, blowing cigarette smoke into the camera, telling us to open the door in slurred speech between puffs.

Somehow, I didn’t even make the connection and just went over to the door and told him he had the wrong door. But he kept speaking into the intercom and started banging the door with his fist, and I think a few kicks. EunBong, understanding what he was saying, realized he was the man who lived under us, and said he looks like a gangster. He had white pants and a white tank top, with big tattoos on his shoulders and hair slicked back. There’s kind of a stereotype in Korea that people with tattoos are gangsters, but even though I’m not Korean, I would have pegged him for a gangster, too.

The part that really got us nervous was when he called his friend and EunBong could hear him saying, “Come on, you know I don’t want to go back to jail, I just want to help me get this door open…” I’d told him many times I wasn’t going to open the door, and that my wife is pregnant, please leave us alone, but after that we called the security guard on the first floor who told us he’d eventually go away. That was pretty annoying considering we had a $100/month security fee added to our rent… I’m still not sure what the point was!

The man started yelling through the door that he was calling the police, so EunBong called them, too. In the ten minutes until they arrived, I was starting to consider that there was a pissed off gangster living right below me, who knew I was a foreigner, so he wouldn’t have any trouble spotting me, and that I wasn’t going to live to see the birth of my baby who was due the following week. When the police got there, I really didn’t want the guy to see my face (and I was being a coward!) so EunBong went out to speak to them. When the gangster saw that her belly was ready to pop he suddenly got really quiet and changed the tone of his voice to a defensive whine about how pitiful his life is, he wife left, and he’s been feeling lonely and every time he went into the toilet to smoke a cigarette someone would start yelling at his through the floor. I didn’t feel sympathy for the guy after hearing that but then his story got a little weird, as he told the cop that she is living with two men, a Korean and a foreigner (actually just me speaking in two languages). He continued that it was a party house and he’d heard I was dealing ex should check my blood for ecstasy. (I suppose if he’d been hearing me singing in the shower, I probably can’t blame him for thinking I was on drugs!)

The cop came in to speak to me and said I should ask him not to smoke more gently next time. I was still shaking from the thought of having my throat slit over the next few days, so just agreed with the cop instead of saying anything about the weeks of asking politely. He looked me up and down quickly and said I didn’t look like I was on drugs, so he wasn’t going to make me do a blood test. For once, I was relieved by that logic!

After the cop left, I decided the best thing was to actually face him, so I went to the store and bought some expensive ginseng drinks as a peace-offering and knocked on his door. He didn’t answer, so I hung the drinks from the handle of the door and EunBong wrote an apologetic note, which we stuck to the door.

By the time our nerves settled, the sun was a bout to come up, so we put the night behind us and headed to the bus to Bongeunsa. It was a beautiful clear morning at the temple. we walked around the grounds, up and down the paths to the small shrines on the hill, and bathed the baby Buddha, also washing away most of the night’s craziness.

We spent another month at that apartment, and in that time, he didn’t stop smoking but he smoked less, and EunBong taught me a new sentence, which I pleaded instead of yelled, “We have our baby now, please help us by not smoking.”

I never did meet him face to face, but I did learn my lesson about the ramifications of employing harsh words. I also learned the Dharma Realm isn’t above employing gangsters for a day if it feels it’s warranted!

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