“Teacher, do you know what is jung?”
“Yes, Jah Min, I’ve heard about jung. Roughly, it translates to a sort of sentimental obligation, loyalty to family and friends.”
“Actually, it is not easily translated into English because it does not exist outside of Korea. Only Koreans have this.”
“That’s not true. Loyalty; we all have our loyalties.”
“It’s more heartfelt in Korea.”
“An unending love for people close to them, hey Jah Min?”
“Especially, Americans do not have this, huh Jah Min?”
“From my time in America, teacher, I would have to say especially Americans, yes. But in the west it really does not exist so much.”
“That’s silly. Of course it exists in every culture. Man is a pack animal. We couldn’t work together without loyalty. Because we don’t have a word for jung specifically, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“But it is not the same. It is not Korean. So, it is not really as strong with others as it is with us. Ours is unquestioned for us. Dae han mingue you know the cheer? We will do anything for our family and friends, without ever questioning them or deserting them.”
“You think this is specifically Korean?”
“Well, sure there are plenty of selfish people back home, maybe a bit stand-offish and judgmental.” But that is such a huge generalization.”
“Because you are not Korean you cannot understand. I think maybe it’s genetic really. We have many songs about it too. Like the song, What is Jung?” The student sang a wailing, mournful oriental ballad about endless love, reminding Jerry of Lionel Richie. The student stopped and looked at his teacher. “Jerry, what about you? How old are you?”
“45 years old.”
“Mom lives in a home for elderly. It’s nice.”
“Have you been there?”
“Not in years, no.”
“And so, who will care for you when you’re old?”
“Me? Hah! I don’t know. Maybe you – and your wife. How’s ‘at sound?”
“Of course, yes, you are my teacher.”
* * *
American Expat English teacher, Jerry Willard sat in his university office smoking, watching cold rain hit dingy concrete and asphalt outside. One night off, Christmas day, and he couldn’t decide what to do with the time. Couldn’t go to the bar, hadn’t had a drink in five years. Already rented every video worth watching. I’ll do a little shopping in Kukje. Boss might like a bottle of cognac. Can’t be too careful. Don’t pay’em tribute and find yerself unemployed.
He found he was smoking filter, so pulled out another, lit it off the last and tossed the melting butt in a tray. He liked that, the Korean method of extinguishing smoldering butts. Wet the tray with a mouthful of phlegm. He cleared his throat and spit on the soggy pile of old cigarettes. Then he pulled off his socks and picked his toes.
Eventually his coworker, a British expatriate from London named Drew Bennigan came in and sat down. A wiry, stoic English gent with a wild shock of white hair, he fit the role of eccentric old expatriate professor. He’d been teaching here for fifteen years, so this school and Drew just fit. Students meandering through campus inevitably spotted the wiry man scooting up the mountain for a tramp or to the post office or helping failing students in the cafeteria. His presence made the university seem scholarly, respectable.
“So Drew, how you gonna spend yer day off for Christmas?” Jerry pulled up closer to Drew so as to make sure he understood his soft mumbling regional dialect, what British expats referred to as Original True English. Whatever, so long as Jerry could understand it; but he couldn’t. What he heard was, “bullabullamillagulla orphanage tomorrow billamulla.” Jerry usually got embarrassed and just nodded his head. He’d seen the strange looks Drew gave him when he answered yes to questions like, how was your weekend? Or what are you doing in your classes? But he knew about benevolent ol’ Drew the big-hearted and his orphanage work. On weekends and holidays when he wasn’t organizing local TESL Club meetings or running marathons, Drew worked with Korean orphans.
Jerry said, “I see. Hmm. Least you’ll get some free grub huh? Maybe even some turkey donations, chicken and dumplings? Oh, just Korean? At least home cooked though. How ‘bout this weekend? Oh yeah, the Korean proficiency test.” Gawd, did it ever end? Could anyone be so damn perfect? At 61, Drew was wired, driven, a constant over-achiever. He was one of the few Expat profs that really did have a PhD in English Literature and master’s in Applied Linguistics, and his teaching credentials. None of this was obvious at first, you know. Being a stuffy old British Prof and all, he was hard to warm up to.
But really, Drew was one of the few real professors in Korea – expat or Korean. He went out of his way for students, kept up with all the modern methods, read the linguistics journals. Sent home his dissertations, etc. Didn’t have to. Probably, he shouldn’t. This was Korea after all. All he had to do was show up sober three days a week. Do the drill. Give’em the lesson, don’t ask questions and take the paycheck. That was how Koreans did it and that was how they wanted it to stay. That was how Jerry did it. Sure, as foreigners they got the crap end of the stick; old run-down machines, broken down computers and cheap mandatory textbooks the English Department head got kickbacks for selling. The less spent on materials the more slush cash for Karaoke Club bargirl bills. So what? This was Korea, where Everyman puts in his hours and goes home at two a.m.
Drew brewed some delicious English tea and they sat sipping. They talked about classes. Jerry was pissed they had to work the extra classes on holiday. Drew was pissed the students had no imagination, wanted teachers to hold their hands and guide them through class. “Already!” he said, “grades aren’t even out yet and students who never came to class are begging for an A+. Please teacher, my mother died. Three students have told me that! One boy’s grandma called me!”
* * *
That evening Jerry sat on the couch flipping through Korean melodramas and shopping networks. A vivid diagram of a dirty colon, take these pills to clean out your ass while shedding pounds. As if any Korean girl needed to lose weight. The chunky ones just had more to spank, something soft to hold…. Outside, neon lights blinked. The onion truck loudspeakers were so loud they rattled his veranda windows. Horns honked, teenagers screamed. It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake, go home and decorate the bamboo or something. Spice the soju. All Jerry wanted was some turkey, potatoes and gravy with rummy eggnog and maybe some nieces and nephews at his feet, if he’d had any. Jesus, the solid concrete walls of Korea; they alone could make a man drink. Florescent lights above, wallpaper over cracked, watered down concrete walls gone black with mold, concrete floors that made his heels hurt. And the cold; insulation didn’t exist. He wrapped himself up with a hot water bottle.
On television red-eyed Korean men drank and smoked while their mothers and wives wailed about sons that chose not to be surgeons but dentists, or daughters who chose business over babies. Tragic. The smokers made him smoke more. The drinkers and all that wailing made him want a drink. Five fucking years without a drink. No O’Douls in Korea. He glanced at his sack of gifts. For his boss, an expensive cognac and even pricier red wine. Why he’d bought both he wasn’t sure. Never could tell though, for what reason one might lose a job in Korea. Korean bosses tended to answer employment questions rather vaguely, and the reasons they’d unwillingly give up concerning hiring and firing never added up. He’d heard the schools were downsizing though, letting extra expats go – the ones who hadn’t bought bosses cognac and wine, maybe, or teachers that expected something: equal treatment or a quality curriculum.
Jerry got up and put the cognac in the freezer. Koreans rarely drank their foreign cognac. They set it in glass cases as decoration and drank 50-cent bottles of the rotgut Soju potion instead. Boss man wouldn’t get the cognac for another day and might not even bring it home; might leave it in the office for between classes. Or place it on his shelf to impress coworkers.
Jerry looked at the wine. He recalled the warm fuzzy feeling, the velvet room, when just the right amount of wine gets one just cozy enough to sit and feel a soft glow in the blood, when the grin wouldn’t go away. He thought of chestnuts roasting, fireplaces, Nat King Cole and bay windows with snowy views.
He thought of the wine, and reached for the bottle. No bottle opener so pushed it in with a chopstick. Turned off the lights and poured a drink by the glowing light of an over-stuffed colon diagram on channel 3. The first glass was delish, dry and sweet. It brought back memories he couldn’t really remember that well, (hah!) because he was a drunk back then. He looked out to the rain. Ah yes, that first cup that softens up the neon glare of go-go lights outside. Now they seemed almost like Christmas lights. He poured one more, then one more.
When Jerry came to he knew not who he was, let alone where. He opened his bile coated mouth and croaked, tried to ask himself questions. But all he had was question without shape, a fact that terrified him in its depth and embarrassed him in its absurdity, although of course, these feelings were also wordless. He could not uncover his head to look, for the brightness was too painful. Instead he just lay, digging for something significant, occasionally retching out bile flecks and foam. He could smell that he’d soiled himself too, from the wretching, but knew he was to weak to bother, so closed his eyes and lapsed into relative numbness.
Eventually a Korean nurse came in and uncovered him. The sight of her brought back everything before glimpses of his identity in Korea, and within an hour he could recall the cognac. While she was cleaning his gauze-bandaged hands and elbows she tried speaking with him. But he’d never bothered studying the language and didn’t feel like talking. He closed his eyes until she left, slowly recalling glimpses of what had happened.
He had shadowy memories of an Uzbek whore he once knew. She was yelling something and her face lunged in and out of his vision, as did her finger, bombarding his face like a deerfly. He remembered feeling vague affection for her gold teeth.
After another long nap, Jerry woke up to more memories. He remembered admiring his bloody knuckles and scratching his naked belly and chest while lying in the center of an intersection, covered with torn and exuding red hives. His other hand held a bottle of Jinro, and the cops were smiling at him, and apologizing.
The next day he was conscious when Drew came in. Drew was holding a big bouquet of flowers. He set them on a chair and sat down on another chair without saying anything for a while. Neither knew what to say but eventually Jerry asked, “So I lost my job?” Without a smile, barely moving his lips, Drew mumbled something suggesting the flowers were from the university. They wanted him back in two days. Don’t you want to know what you did out there?”
But Jerry did not. “Same thing I always do on a drunk, everything and anything,” he said more to himself. “Drew, my head is still killing me. Can you slow down a bit, maybe speak up some?”
“Well. Yes…I talked to Miss Kim about it down at her burger stand. You’d torn it down almost, you know. Her stand I mean. I don’t know how you managed to hide, and why you’re not dead, but with all the cops around and the Russian sailors and American military officers you went after, you still hid for four days and five nights. It took us that long to find you, and every night and day you did something.”
“Go figure. How come I got my job?”
“Miss Kim. It’s a good thing you’ve got jung with Miss Kim – bought burgers from her and brought her customers and all as long as you have. She got the police out of it. Then she called and explained to the school. She told them everything – you were drunk and out of your head and wouldn’t remember. It’s just like any other country. Alcohol makes a good excuse for anyone. Even the American GI’s turned the other cheek.”
“Yeah, but the embarrassment.”
“Everyone here understands mistakes. People have to forgive you because of age. How many times have you seen a police officer assaulted by a drunken old man?”
“Hyeah.… Old men howling in the subways.”
“It’ll be forgotten in another week.”
So that was it, business as usual for Jerry. He’d never had a relapse go over so lightly. Not that the guilt wasn’t overwhelming. Just walking home was another lesson in humiliation. His brain was now clear enough to find some self-assuring excuses. Of course everyone understood. Wasn’t this country Hell even for its own people? Couldn’t they understand how the noise and ruckus brought about occasional mistakes? He was justified. He had a right to let go sometimes. They didn’t know how much he’d suffered. He wasn’t built for this type of living. This is a drinking culture, what else could expect of him, and so on and so forth.
His apartment was covered with broken soju bottles. A window was broken out. Newspaper was laid out where he’d covered up, apparently after he’d soaked his blankets and clothes in piss. He picked through some clothes on the floor and found them covered in vomit or feces. Eventually he found something clean, and cleaned out the bathroom enough to get ready for his 3 o’clock class.
This week was also for contract resigning. He met Drew in the office. who seemed uncomfortable. But he usually seemed that way. He said he’d gone to the boss’s office once or twice this week and the boss acted surprised, fidgeting one day then flattering Drew and buying him lunch the next day. Drew thought maybe he was still upset about Jerry’s incident and was confused about how to respond. Jerry should be wary, he warned, it was possible he’d reconsidered the implications of employing a dangerous, recurrent alcoholic. Jerry had been through this so many times he’d long ago resigned to accepting the inevitable. Another paycheck lost. There was always Thailand. What does a recovering alcoholic do while sober in Thailand? The thought of a passionless prostitute and sober, guilt-laden sex did not appeal.
But there was work there; good pay and warm weather. Why not Japan? Why not Taiwan? Vietnam needs teachers, but again a picture of drunken tourism popped into his head. Indonesia. They need teachers and have warm beaches, and since they’re Islamic then liquor and young girls might be off-limits.
By now he was at his boss’s office. His boss was always friendly, always concerned when face to face. Jerry was offered lunch and green tea. He was asked how he felt, was he okay, did he need anything, if he’d contacted concerned relatives, was his mother upset, would she come to see him, did he need to see her, etc. The boss looked as if he might drop a tear or two, shaking his head and nodding and sighing and patting poor Jerry’s leg and back. He gripped Jerry’s shoulder and said, “I understand you Jerry. You’re a friend. We would never back-bite to you in Korea. You’re part of our family here. This is your university home. It’s okay. It’s okay.” Eventually a contract was slid his way.
But his boss held the contract tight and spoke. “Jerry,” his boss said with that soft, creepy voice Korean bosses use before informing you of something unpleasant. His boss sat down close to him, too close, so that Jerry could smell the garlic and see the spinach stuck in his teeth. “Jerry, we have to talk to you privately about something.”
“Maybe we need your help. Anyway, it could make you a lot of extra money for some time.” Jerry just sat looking at his boss, not speaking, trying to breathe himself into a calmer state. He hated the way they approached such nastiness so intimately. It was made to look as if such things were done for a higher cause, say for the betterment of the school, for sacrifice to the students, or the team or the family when usually all it came down to was short-sighted, blunt, uncreative greed. He thought about what this could be about. A Kid’s Club maybe, an overnight 20-hour a day, intensive month-long English immersion program for elementary school children, perhaps. Maybe they’d ship him off to some other school each day, a 4-hour taxi ride through traffic and smog and noise to an industrial plant full of dead tired hung-over salarymen forced to study for the benefit of the company.
What could it be? Jerry just sat, seething beneath his blank demeanor. Outside he tried to remain calm, but he just kept asking himself, what has my little escapade created? What do I have to do now to stay employed? Oh yes, they’ve got me by the balls, indeed they do. What is it? Just tell me and get it over so I can move on to Thailand.
“Jerry. We’ve decided to let Drew go. Can you help us?”
“Ahb – Excuse me?”
“Jerry, we don’t want Drew this year, okay?”
“You mean – you’re going to keep me – and not Drew?”
“Yes of course,” his boss laughed and smiled, as Asians do, at almost anything, be it happiness, sadness, embarrassment or discomfort. “We’re very sorry for Drew, you understand. But, we hope he can understand. You understand don’t you?”
“Why we’re not re-signing him.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I mean. Well. We’re hoping to make you head teacher, and you can take up some of his classes too. You’ll have a good pay raise, you know. Understand?”
How could they dump him for me? Why? Jerry wanted to ask this without saying something stupid. After all, aside from the guilt, he was being offered a big raise, maybe. He had to be sure of this too, but how could he ask all of this about pay and hours and then go on to defend Drew? This was already too much thought for a guy recovering from a week of blood poisoning.
He cleared his head and waited… then said, “can I get back to you on this?”
“Actually you can sign now, okay? Because we love you, you know, we’re giving you this great offer.”
“Um… Why do you want to get rid of Drew? I mean, he’ll ask for a reason.”
“The situation if very complicated you know? It’s hard to explain because it’s so complicated. We’ve thought about this for a long time, you understand. It’s for the benefit of the students.”
Jerry was not one to push. He understood his own survival just as well as anyone. Finding another school would be a pain in the ass anyways. The schools were all in cahoots. He’d need his rep for another job, and he didn’t feel like going through all of this, applications and stuff, if he didn’t have to. He opened his mouth, “Uh huh. I understand.”
He reached for the contract. But the boss held tight. “One more thing. Can you tell Drew for us please? As a favor for all we’ve done for you?” Jerry nodded and signed.
“Jesus Jerry, why do you think they’ve done this?” Drew sat looking into his tea cup, and his hand was trembling. He sat back, to maintain composure. He took a breath and sighed.
“I dunno Drew, we’re foreigners after all.”
“But I-but you-“ He said it softly, shrugging and staring hard at his tea.
“Yeah, it’s pretty fucked up I know.”
“Do you think I upset someone? Maybe it was that student I failed.”
“I never went to the school picnics….No, I mean; I’ve even taken the department head on tours of London. I give him gifts every New Year’s. ”
“I’ve never been to any picnics either. Look, why not retire and go play?”
“I’d been promised tenure and retirement benefits. I’m too old to wander. This is home Jerry, right here. I’ll miss my kids, my students. So many people here are family Jerry. I look forward to seeing them every day. You know how it is here. We love to hate it, Jerry. But can we leave? Do you want to go back to a country full of strangers, of of – of no jung!?”
They sat looking at each other a while. Briefly, Jerry recollected his student’s questions. “No. No, I don’t want to.” America: a nice place to visit; old friends; green lawns; personal space; real beers and real pizza. Japan had order, Thailand beaches and India wild scenery. But Korea. He always came back.
“I just want to know why,” said Drew, “I mean, I’d be willing to work things out.”
“They’re going to give you everything back though, a whole lot of cash too, after how many years of saving?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I know Drew. I know. I don’t know what the point is though. I mean, after all, did you ever really expect it to be that easy?”
“No…I mean I… No. No, I didn’t but…Well then… I need to stop thinking about this.”
The two sat silently for some time. Jerry played world cup soccer on the computer while Drew sat at his desk reading Jerry’s new contract. Drew read silently for a time, while Jerry quietly played and smoked. He was relieved. No blame, no fits, the steadfast Brit stoicism worked in his favor for this particular situation. He said over his shoulder, “Drew, you can stay with me as long as you want you know. If you want to just teach privates and –“
“Jerry, you didn’t read this contract, did you?”
“They doubled your hours.”
“Really? Well Hell. That’s only about 22 hours a week though.”
“They didn’t double your pay. You’re getting about eight dollars per hour overtime, not much more than before. Look, you’re working on three campuses each day. They cut your vacations in half, and you’ll be working a children’s camp every summer and winter, no overtime. You like kids?”
Jerry heart sank, as Drew’s had, not thirty minutes earlier. He shook his head and sighed. It was too late in the evening for much else. The two sat looking at each other for some time.
“I don’t want to leave either. I dunno. I think I gotta make a phone call Drew. Excuse me.” Jerry walked out into the cracked, wet hallway with cell phone and cigarettes. He slid his feet along the gritty floors to the window and sat on the sill next to a wet newpaper with a pile of half-smoked cigarettes smeared across it. He plugged in Jah Min’s phone number and knew he’d get an answer.