Some years ago, back when I was single, I had an affair with a woman I’ll call Jinhee. We met in Busan through a mutual friend and had a torrid couple of days together before she had to go back home to Incheon.
We kept in touch, and about a month later, I went to meet her in Seoul for a weekend. One steamy summer day found us strolling along Cheonggyecheon, the revitalized stream that winds through the center of Seoul. Once polluted and covered by concrete, it’s now a clean green refuge from the manic hustle of the big city.
As Jinhee and I walked hand-in-hand along the shaded path, a woman approached me and thrust a pamphlet into my hand.
Jehova’s Witness. I had seen this pamphlet before, around 8 a.m. on more than a few Sundays, handed to me across my doorway when I would rather have been sleeping off Saturday night. The cover was hard to forget: a pastoral scene with smiling people carrying large baskets piled with fruit, while other people stroked the fur of wild animals, who calmly sit among them, apparently for that very purpose.
Jehova’s Witnesses believe that God and exactly 144,000 of the uber-righteous will rule over the earth from heaven, while the great majority who didn’t make the cut inherit the consolation prize: an earthly paradise without sickness or death. The scene that they depict on their pamphlets is the latter, lowball offer, which in itself ought to straight away insult the dignity and intelligence of any potential convert. I suppose the faithful find that a pleasant enough reward, but I’ve always found this particular version of paradise to be wanting. With pent-up retribution for a dozen shattered Sunday mornings, I started pointing out the absurdities of this crudely imagined Eden to Jinhee.
“This shit makes no sense. If nobody dies, you don’t have to eat, but look, almost everyone in the picture is holding a mound of food. Maybe humans in the ‘peaceful new world’ eat for pleasure, but, in a world of no indigestion, heart disease, or gout – in other words, nothing holding you back – you’d expect to see a few fat people in the picture. Where are the gluttons?
“Maybe humans eat out of habit or some kind of vestigial craving, like zombies. Charming, right? Or maybe they really do need to eat after all, in which case you wonder what the consequences of not eating would be, if not death. A perpetual hunger like a vampire? That doesn’t sound like paradise to me. That sounds like bullshit.
“Don’t worry, though, because the peaceful new world is a land of plenty. Look at that pile of apples the boy is carrying, and the blueberry bush in the foreground. Food is just lying around for the taking, nobody has to work for it, and they’re all thin and healthy. It’s a magical, all-you-can eat soup kitchen.
“Still, if this is a place where there is no death and sickness, why bother with apples and berries? Why not Cinnabon and cheesecake and 64-ounce Cokes and all the shit that would normally kill you?”
The night before we’d had a few drinks and a lot of laughs, but our walk today was mostly quiet. With this hokey pamphlet as fodder, I felt myself getting on a roll again.
“I actually like that they include animals in the peaceful new world. And why not? Are they not also considered god’s creatures? The immediate question though is the same one that torpedoes Noah’s Ark: what do the lions eat? Must they kill the other animals, or, heaven forbid, that cute little Hispanic girl who is scratching his snout? That wouldn’t be very peaceful or new.
“Nope, no meat in paradise. That’s why they’re all apparently vegetarians. You’d better like fruit though, because harvesting vegetables usually requires the plant to die. Sorry, vegetables! No peaceful new world for you!”
Jinhee was walking slowly at my side, devouring every word, and at this last comment I felt her stir slightly. I paused to recall if we had eaten any meat. I have an uncanny habit of poking fun at vegetarianism in front of people who turn out to be vegetarians, with predictably awkward results. No, we had had bulgogi the last time we met. Fair game. I handed her the pamphlet and carried on.
“Check out the boy wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. How were they manufactured? Are there Bangladeshi sweatshops in the peaceful new world? And how do they wash their clothes? Do they go old-school and beat them on rocks, which isn’t really the first activity that leaps to mind when I imagine the things I would want to do in paradise, or are they machine-washed with powerful detergents that pollute that pretty lake in the background? Seriously, apart from picking fruit, why is nobody working? This kind of leisure time you see here implies a lot of labor-saving machinery, but the most technologically complex device in the whole picture is a wicker basket.
“Think about it: if there’s no death, no new people could be born because it would lead to overpopulation, and the children in the picture will never grow up. How could they? Aging implies dying. They would have to be children forever, at least physically. Imagine being a billion years old, with all the wisdom and knowledge such a life would give you, and having to repeat the second grade. Forever. And what kind of idiot would be smiling about it – or is he just really looking forward to chowing down on his ten billionth apple?”
As I spoke, I became progressively more animated while Jinhee listened in perfect attention. It was fun talking with someone so worldly (She had worked in Germany for many years) at such a high level of English about things I didn’t often get a chance to talk about and hadn’t even realized I cared about so much.
“Look at the man and woman walking together. What is their relationship like? Do they have sex? If they do, why? Do they get bored and swap partners, or do they just stop having sex altogether? Who sleeps in the wet spot, and how does he or she feel about it? Sorry, but a peaceful new world would probably have to exclude sex. I mean, sex is fun and all, but it’s not generally conducive to peace in the world…”
Here I felt her stir again. Jinhee and I had slept together a few times, but had never really talked about sex, and I realized that my last comment could be badly construed, especially by someone with whom I was in a budding relationship. I’d been rambling for maybe ten minutes, so I paused again to gauge her reaction.
She looked from the pamphlet to me and said, very plainly but with gentle urgency, “That’s my religion.”
“That’s your what? Wow. Okay. Shit. I mean okay.”
I didn’t know what to say except to apologize profusely. Incredibly, she either wasn’t upset or didn’t show it. She explained that her mom was deeply involved in the church, but judging from the way she didn’t immediately tell me to go fuck myself, I gathered that her affiliation was somewhat less devout. I don’t know if she was trying to make me feel like less of a jackass, but she expressed a genuine interest in my opinions, and said that she’d never thought about those things in that way before. She talked a bit about her beliefs, but it’s hard to reconstruct that conversation now, because it was long time ago, and as she talked I was carrying on an internal monologue that went:
“You idiot. You stupid fucking idiot. I can’t believe you said that you fucking idiot….”
We continued our walk hand in hand, and even enjoyed the rest of the weekend, but as it turned out, that was the last time I saw her. Not long after that I met a charming lapsed Buddhist from down the street, who later became my wife, ’til death do us part.