Obstacles

“Common sense is nothing more than the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen” – Albert Einstein

Directly across from English teacher Marie, sat Yoo Gill Me. Gill Me was an average Korean girl of average Korean stature: Slender, slinky, petite by western standards. She wore a pair of shiny black skin-tight slacks with a black sleeveless sweater that, when twisting just slightly, exposed a sliver of skin. Beneath the sweater was a stiff white push-up bra suggesting a pair of ample cone-shaped breasts. Upon her feet, fashionable stiletto heels with long, wickedly pointing toes, toes so long that Gil Me must climb stairways in a semi-sideways position and travel the city streets with the gaited steps of a Tennessee-Walking Horse. Next to her sat three girlfriends of a remarkably similar design. Each girl was picking pimples or preening perms while gazing into tiny cosmetic mirrors. Gill Me’s gaze however, was fixed upon Marie as she chatted loudly in Korean. The singularly paranoid state of first year culture shock had made Korean seem to Marie phonetically repulsive, consisting of much whining from girls, and much screaming and spitting from old women.

Marie sat with her hair over her eyes, hand holding up her hair, painfully struggling to focus on a year old mildewed copy of Reader’s Digest she’d fished out from behind a dust-laden corner of a grimy, rusty desk in the teacher’s lounge. She was overwhelmingly aware of everyone and everything around her, but there were two more minutes before her final morning class, and this was her time – no one else’s time. She must guard it savagely. She couldn’t enter the teacher’s lounge, for there every Korean teacher would oppress her with endless grammar questions no matter how many times she explain that her degree was in psychology. Here in her classroom, in order to safeguard her precious time, she must look as focused as possible upon reading this magazine and respond to all intrusions with a savage snarl.

Next to her she sensed the presence of middle-aged bus driver, Bum Suck. I’m being stalked by a Korean bus-driver named Bum Suck, she thought. But Bum-Suck was still buzzing from last night’s soju, a formaldehyde-laced Korean liquor that leaves victims fuzzy into the next day and reeking of rubbing alcohol for three. The reek was intensified because Bum had not had breakfast but had eaten generous portions of kimchi, or garlic-pickled cabbage the night before, along with two packs of cigarettes, consumed within an unventilated plastic tent situated next to an open sewer along the freeway, in the unrestricted industrial armpit of the city.

On the table in front of him, Bum Suck fondled a gift for his teacher. A container full of delicious Bullgolgi, raw beef cured in a tasty mixture of garlic, onion, ginger and soy sauce. Bum Suck would explain again that his wife was worried about Marie’s health. Then he would ask to come over to prepare it. She would politely reject and later dump the expensive, lovingly prepared beef into the trash because she couldn’t figure out how to prevent her rice from coming out too soggy. Fuck, she thought, gimme some fajitas and salsa with corn tortillas. But I won’t have that for another eight months. Good lord, eight months.

Class began, and Marie, now an expert in milking precious minutes of class time, began with a simple self-introduction. She gazed past the students with a smile suggesting nervous breakdown, then stood up slowly and paused, burning each ticking second. Then she approached the board to write her name. Marie, that was all they needed to know. She drew a map pointing out her hometown of Dallas. She asked for questions, and Gill Me’s friend, nicknamed Purple, spoke up. “You have such big, beautiful eyes teacher, and long eyelashes. Oh, I envy you teacher.” Another girl, Banana, said, “yes, you look like an American movie star, with long legs and glamorous body.” Then Gill Me said, “Yes, and you have a nose like a dog, and a hip like a duck. Your hip really is so big! Really! Your hip is like two Korean girl hips. Your nose is like the white Korean dog, Jin Doe Gae. Do you know? Jin Doe Gae? It is our national dog.” The students nodded, for it was true, this was the national dog and Marie was a broad, big boned girl and her nostrils were now flaring.

Students laughed openly, slapping Gill me on the shoulders or clapping their hands, apparently unaware of her remarks being tactless insults in the eyes of a foreigner. She felt the acid boil in her belly, an intestinal problem she supposed came from eating pickled cabbage. Impulse pulled Marie towards the classroom exit. But she fought it. She was a teacher, an adult, and would behave as such. But no, this blatant slight deserved verbal vengeance. Yet, it was not uncommon for Marie to hear Korean couples shamelessly point out each other’s most embarrassing handicaps. So maybe it wasn’t an insult at all. Then again, maybe it was okay to speak up. Maybe she had nothing to lose. They wouldn’t fire her. They needed her. So Marie said smiling, “Yes, thank you Gill Me, and your face is pushed in like a pug dog, you have small eyes like a rat, your hips are too small to bear children, you have bad skin and wear more makeup than a clown. Do you know clown?” She drew a picture of a clown on the board and mentioned Ronald McDonald in case someone misunderstood. Again, the students all nodded and laughed. Others verbally agreed. “Yes. Gill Me is ugly.” Gill Me smiled too. She was not ugly. Marie knew that any white boy close enough would ignore Marie and pursue Gill Me without hesitation.

* * *

Marie made it through another class. After a quick nap she would go out to lunch with her boss, Miss Kwak, and coworker, George Smilen. George, or Smiles, was a friendly guy, a tad better looking than the average expat dork. But he’d not given Marie a singular sidelong glance. His mind was clearly focused on the Asian persuasion. His gaze darted in the direction of any visible Asian female under fifty. This made conversation difficult. He treated Marie not as a feminine beauty, but as a co-worker. She found it insulting.

Marie vented her frustrations openly, assuming her boss could not understand English. She said to Smiles. “Isn’t it ridiculous how these people actually drink the soup from their bowls? It’s disgusting if you ask me.”

Smiles picked up his bowl and slurped. He set it down and looked at her, “Why would anyone finish off the broth spoon by spoon? It’s a clear sign of anal retention. Do you drink your cereal milk or use a spoon?”

“Well, if I’m alone, sometimes I drink it. But I wouldn’t want someone to see me do it. It’s disgusting.”

“Why? The only reason we don’t do it back home is because our mothers told us not to. It’s Insignificant.”

“Well, in India people clean their butts with their fingers. That’s okay?”

“When you drink from a bowl, do you get shit in your fingernails? Do your fingernails touch your soup? Do your fingers stink?”

“I just think its poor breeding to behave so crudely.”

“Poor breeding! Come on, let’s leave the breeding for pedigreed poodles.”

This was how conversations went with jackass Smiles. He would defend anything Korean, as if this place was somehow better than America. The guy was obviously a misfit back home. Here he was pampered. He seemed to get off on the excessive attention foreigners received, responding cheerfully towards every horde of school kids following behind screaming “Oh hello! I am Korea, and you? Do you like kimchi?” She despised the rude little brats and refused to acknowledge them.

* * *

Marie now stood in a monsoon down poor, waiting under an umbrella, for a bus that would take her to some private children’s classes in an apartment complex full of mothers that paid excessive sums to ensure their children learned pure Midwest American English pronunciation. Her sandaled socks squished beneath the flow of shallow waterfalls rushing down stairways and hilltops. Next to her was a man who looked about forty. He wore a light suit in the steamy heat but did not seem to sweat. His hair was greased back and balding on top. His face was pinched and pressed with wrinkles accumulated through years of chain smoking, soju binging and mandatory six-to-seven day workweeks. He smoked a cigarette while hawking phlegm on the pavement directly before Marie’s feet. She grunted loudly and eyeballed the man, who watched her indifferently. His eyes lingered on her chest, and then her eyes, before he hawked once more, watching once more as Marie sneered at him.

When the bus arrived Marie placed one foot on the stairs but was suddenly knocked to her knees by a horde of old women with packages on their heads and babies tied to their backs. The women elbowed each other whilst struggling to be first on the bus. As Marie pulled herself up, the old women knocked her back down, using her fallen body to help hoist themselves up the stairs. “Pock! Pock! Pock! Pocking Bitchie!” They cackled, mimicking Marie’s failed attempt at castigation. Then the son-of-a-bitch who’d spit at Marie attempted to help her up the stairs. She pushed him off with flailing arms and scuttled to the back seats, hissing at the staring passengers.

The foggy windows of the bus were closed against the rain and the dense reek of garlic and soju hit Marie in the face, like a bucket of chewed up salami. By then the bus driver had gained enough speed to keep the bus rocking from side to side, swerving through an erratic throng of accelerating motorized anarchy, barreling into the next blind curve directly beyond which would be the next red light. The bus driver saw at once that nothing stood between him and the red light, so burst through crooked rows of cars, nearly swiping three school kids that were pushing one another into traffic as their mothers stood pricing melons. On the bus, old women groaned while swinging from side to side. Bundles of vegetables spun across the floor. High school kids held fast, sleeping through it all with heads swiveling violently from side to side.

To maintain speed the bus veered onto the wrong side of the street, barreling into the oncoming traffic. Maria closed her eyes and felt the familiar prickles crawl up her spine. She gasped, sucking in breaths as the oncoming cars swerved from lane to lane. Then she sat down and tried reading a book but became nauseous and exited the bus early. She hit the red button, a signal to stop. The driver jerked the bus to the right, cutting off three lanes of traffic to reach the bus stop on time.

Staggering off the bus, Marie stepped into a puddle of oily muck. She closed her eyes hard and sucked in the pungency of another smoggy afternoon. Thankful the rains had stopped, she could now walk to her private classes. Loud motorbikes belching noxious fumes that shimmered in the heat forced her off the sidewalk with squawking horns and threats of more mud. She stumbled off the rutted sidewalk and turned a corner, running headlong into a massive machine used to pull down buildings. Her options were so utterly ridiculous. She could crawl under the swiveling tank, or risk the mercy of a thousand mindless bali bali – hurry hurry, drivers in the narrow street.

Eventually Marie reached the apartment building, but could not use the elevator because someone was using it to move an entire house load of furniture up to the eighteenth floor. Whomever it was that was moving had stacked the new furniture in front of the stairway she needed to climb. To ascend the stairs she’d have to climb over the furniture or move it. She picked up what she could, smashing what she could, before attempting to climb 22 flights of stairs in the monsoon heat. On the 18th floor she found the movers, a pack of old men. She screamed at them, repeating the Korean insult, “aeesh!” while shaking her head and rolling her eyes, calling them stupid in English and Korean. The old men responded with confused chuckles, low bows and soft apologies. Then a young college boy stepped out, his eyes narrowing, reflecting both shame and indignation in the face of more western criticism. Marie’s voice shrunk, recognizing a look that implied, “you hate Korea? You come here and tell us what is best way? You are guest here!” But his English was less cultivated. He said, “Go. Go. Go!”

She replied, “fuck you!” because that was all she could think to say.

“Oh my Got!” said one student’s mother as Marie walked into the apartment hyperventilating, “You look so terrible! You sweat like pig! You okay?” The comments, though compassionate, were another slight to Marie. The woman held her by the hand and took her to the kitchen table. Marie sobbed uncontrollably. She said, “I don’t understand this country!” The women recommended Marie skip class and eat with them. Everyday, in each private class, Marie was fed fruit or dumplings, with orange juice or green tea. But today the mothers called for a double order of pizza. The children saw that Marie was upset so took turns sitting on her lap, innocently whispering fur in Korean while stroking the hair on her wrists. Others were amazed at the amount of sweat produced by one white woman and touched the beads on her forehead before wiping it off with tissue.

Through the meal Marie thought of that angry college kid. She vaguely considered her own thoughtless temper instead of the trivial obstacles, the inconvenience of the old men’s haphazard moving methods. As she ate, slowly savoring each slice of pizza, she managed to regain composure, her ability to act precisely. A mother said to her, “I think you need Jesus Christ, Marie. You should come to my church Sunday. Christ will love you there.”

Marie said, “Oh, I’m a Catholic. I go every Sunday.”

The woman said, “but Catholics are idolaters, not Christian. You should come with us to feel peace. You must be Christian.”

Marie looked into the woman’s eyes, briefly considered what she did know about Koreans, and then made a decision. She said, “My mother is very, very sick. I came to Korea because my family needs the money I make here. But it hasn’t been enough. I’m paid well but don’t have enough this month for her hospital bills. They’re threatening to throw her out of the hospital.” She looked down, squeezing out a few more tears.

The women fell into absolute hysterics, clearly concerned over this poor creature whose country had such a blood-sucking medical system. After a few minutes of noisy conversation the women pulled out their purses and made a collection. Marie knew this was payday. For eight hours of work each month at this one house, she was paid the equivalent of 500 dollars. Overall, she worked four hours of privates every day, six days a week on top of her school classes. At twenty-seven, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she was making about 7000 dollars a month teaching English in a country where meals cost about less than four dollars. The women gave her an advance, 300 dollars on top of her regular wage. Then they sent her home, calling a taxi to pick her up and giving her more than enough taxi fare.

* * *

Of all the English teachers that Miss Kwak had employed in over ten years as an English school director, Marie was most certainly was her favorite. Marie was also Miss Kwak’s first woman. Financially it was a big boost. Adults and children, both male and female, preferred a female teacher. Parent’s wanted a mother figure in the classroom. College girls and house wives were glad to be rid of the typical, lecherous middle-aged desperado or geeky outcast looking for Asian brides, breathing heavily and staring into their blouses, using sexual positions as Friday’s conversation topic. Having a white girl gave Korean men something more exotic, a bit of Western eye candy. Marie had large pendulous breasts, and hips virtually nonexistent in the Korean gene pool. She had big green eyes and long curling lashes. Unlike the foreign men, Marie did not come to class in the morning drunk, stinking and unkempt with uncombed hair and dirty jeans, dazed from the previous night’s soju trip. Not once had she slept with a fellow Korean teacher, and the landlady never called to complain of her bringing boys home on weekends.

But Miss Kwak noticed Marie was hitting depression earlier than most men. Usually they hit the wall after eight months. This was Marie’s fourth. The typical signs of fourth monthers; expressions of neural overload and stupefaction; face shifting from fascination to hilarity to resentment, then finally to the expat’s last resort; verbal or physical aggression; teachers laughing themselves to tears until angry enough to slap a ten year old on the mouth or tell a decrepit old woman to fuck off; all of this seemed to have missed Marie completely. Marie looked as if she had been here two years. She was withdrawn. She said hello only on payday, which was today.

So Miss Kwak would try to help her out, show concern. Give her a pat on the back. But Kwak knew better than to invite her out or try to spend time with her. Westerners were very sensitive about the issue of personal time. Usually if Miss Kwak gave foreigners much attention they explained they wanted space, did not need hospitality from boss or coworkers. They could figure out Korea without an escort. But if Miss Kwak left them alone then they complained that Koreans were poor hosts, and they felt helpless because of Korean xenophobia.

It seemed impossible to keep any foreigner happy at all. If Korea is a developing nation, it’d better be good and developed by next week. This was the message Westerners suggested to every Korean speaking English. Even those who couldn’t speak English could easily understand what foreigners must be saying, every conversation peppered with fuck, a word implying discontent or hatred, a word implying that Korea was somehow inferior to the West.

* * *

Marie sat down in the office and was cordially offered coffee or green tea. She was asked how she was by Miss Kwak’s smiling lackey translator. She got through the formalities by remaining still and answering questions with yes, no or any one-syllable answer appropriate. Then the translator began Marie’s prepay lecture as such. “Marie, Miss Kwak says you look very tired and a little bit ugly lately. She wants to know if there are problems and she would like you to do better and look prettier. She says you are a good teacher but must be better. You must smile more, and move around the class. She wants to know why you have been wearing black. The college students like colorful, healthy, smiling teachers. They want you to go drinking with them occasionally. Also you need to loose weight. You’re little bit fat. Here is a gift from Miss Kwak.”

Miss Kwak handed Marie a large bouquet of yellow roses, and a box full of bubble bath she’d bought in an airport duty free shop. Even as Marie accepted the flowers, Miss Kwak saw Marie’s cheeks color, her nostrils flare and detected that she might be grinding her teeth. Somehow Miss Kwak offended Marie. Miss Kwak smiled, a smile that Koreans call a Japanese smile, a forced smile that does not extend into the eyes. She said “Good teacher Marie. Good teacher.”

Marie smiled the same and bowed, then took the money, a breath, and allowed herself to calm down. Then she turned to the translator. “Could you please tell Miss Kwak that my mother very is sick? I need to send extra money for hospital bills. I need a month and a half advance in pay. I know it is inconvenient, but I have school loans to pay and my mother’s hospital bills. I am sorry.”

Miss Kwak immediately pulled out a wad of bills and stuffed it lovingly into Marie’s pockets. This appeared to be another 2 thousand bucks. Then she told Marie not to mention any of this to George Smilen. Marie smiled, nodded, thanked the strange women and left the building.

* * *

The next day after morning classes Marie went jogging at the local park. Eden Park was a knobby little knoll popping up between the twisting streets of the fish-markets, like a wart from the whorls on one’s finger. It was an adequate hide-away, roofed in by trees covered in pumpkin vines, which blocked out the clatter of construction and the unending assault of car horns. It also had a running path that looped all the way around the hill. Marie bounced her way to the park through the narrow streets of the local produce markets, or shijang. The shijang was full of squatting old women, ajumas, with dried apple faces and sun freckles, selling live or salted eels, dried squids and buckets of dried anchovies. She was aware that the ajumas, were poking each other and nodding towards the white girl with the large hips and bouncing b! osoms. Then she was up in the park, hoping to work off calories from frequent pizza binges, her weekly fix of Western food.

The park was empty aside from a few retired couples playing badminton and grandmothers foraging in bushes, picking out herbs for dinner’s side dishes. Eventually there was an obstacle, a wall of six Korean girls walking arm in arm. Marie noisily stomped her feet and cleared her throat. But the girls remained unaware, loudly chatting about teachers and friends. She jogged from one side of their wall to the other, eyeballing the girls and shaking her head, making it clear she wanted around. But the girls were clueless. They’d never been trained in the finite details of another country’s unspoken etiquette. Marie then lunged into the great wall of girls in an attempt brake through. The girls abruptly parted and let her pass. She turned back to see the girls wave at her, smiling and yelling “hello foreigner!”

As Marie approached the entrance of the park she saw a group of screaming ajumas blocking her way. A rat, no doubt, had attracted these women’s attention. She pushed through the crowd and ran straight into a large macaque monkey with its teeth bared. The monkey squatted on its haunches whining and hooting and glowering. Marie froze. Then in a snap decision she threw her hands over her head, bouncing up and down, bow-legged and beating her chest. She shouted out grunts, “Ugh! Ugh!” Like a great silver-backed ape defending her young, Marie lunged at the terrified monkey. She was well trained in the art of monkey self-defense. Before coming to Korea she’d been a volunteer in the city zoo. This monkey did not retreat but pulled into itself, showing its impressively well-honed canines.

How did this monkey get here? There were no zoos anywhere near this area. Marie knew from training at a zoo in Dallas that monkeys were not native to Korea. This particular monkey, a macaque, was found in Japan at the famous snowy hot springs, and all over Southeast Asia. Macaques lived fairly close to man without problem. She suspected that this monkey had escaped from a restaurant where old men prepared for an exotic feast promised to boost their sexual stamina. This was the reason for the restaurants serving clubbed to death dog, as well as why Koreans ate snakes, eels, sea slugs, worms, centipedes and an occasional cat. So why not monkey?

This was a large male, probably 35 pounds. It was mangy, poorly cared for, clearly more confused than the women crowding around ready to pummel the beast with sticks and stones. Marie felt now as if she truly shared something with this lost and cornered primate. She certainly could not let them hurt it.
Marie turned to the women, telling them not to hurt it and to get the police. She was asking where it’d come from when a woman screamed and pointed. Marie turned just in time to see the monkey sink its fangs into her calf, then bolting up the hill. There it sat mocking Marie with lips curled in a doggishly fanged grimace.

* * *

George was sitting at the coffee table browsing Marie’s Southeast Asian tour guides when Marie staggered into the room grasping the wall. She gulped in air and sobbed convulsively. She stopped suddenly to stare at George. Then George said, “Are you okay? Why are you crying?” She ! resumed sobbing and collapsed in an armchair, stammering through explanation, “I–was—uh—uh-attacked-by-a–monkey-in-Eden–Park!” Smilen came to her side and said “calm down, here is some hot green tea. Now take a sip, relax, and tell me what happened.

After some sips she said, “It was running around biting locals and, (sniffle, sniffle) they’re all screaming and running around too, but since I had monkey defense training from a zoo in Dallas, I went to help. But when I grunted, like this – Ugh! Ugh! – And beat my hands on my chest and over my head like this,” she jumped up and down with her arms over her head, “the women laughed, so I turned to look at them and the monkey bit me!” she showed her calf to George. He said, “But monkeys aren’t native to Korea and there are no zoos around here. Marie said, “They told me it was a large squirrel or maybe a dog or even a pig! Like I don’t know a dog from a monkey!” She blubber! ed some more. George lamely tried to calm her. He mentioned rabies and she broke down again, telling George, “Cancel my afternoon classes. I’m going to get shots.”

* * *

That evening as George, penniless, prepared to go out and get pickled on dollar bottles of soju. He heard the busy rustling within Marie’s bedroom and despised her incessant Korea bashing. It’d been a bad day for her but she’d get over it as he did, with soju and bad beer. He asked her to come out to drink. She said she’d meet him later. He shrugged, slipping out the door and into another neon night.

Marie packed necessities. Everything went into plastic bags to keep dry. Other stuff went home via slow boat, sent by her Korean girlfriend down the street. She packed boxes for home but stopped to once more shuffle through pictures of students she’d sometimes thought loved and respected her. She’d thought at times that these students understand the confusion she felt, but now she could not share it. They were Korean, and she was an American enveloped in culture shock. Everything Korean seemed to slip inside her brain and being, seemed to infringe upon what it was all made up of. Every detestable habit of any Korean seemed aimed at her alone. Every glance told her they despised her – and she them. She’d tried so hard to understand but the constant bombardment of this other, this Koreaness, had shocked her system for so many slow months.

But still, she packed up small memories, notes and pictures from affectionate students, mothers and Korean English teachers. She looked at the faces of college kids that’s asked her out, ajumas that’s offered her to guide her through the city, brought gifts for her and paid for expensive weekends, dinners and beers. Back then she’s spent time each night planning classes, cutting and pasting poster boards and laminating word cards for various games, rummaging through magazines for pictures to describe, studying grammar book games and wracking her brain for conversation topics that would neither bore nor offend the students. She studied the Korean alphabet and learned decent pronunciation of syllables. Suddenly though, the lucrative demand for private English teachers got in the way of more scholastic pursuits. She had debts, more expensive dreams, so ! the private classes became her priority.

Soon only the good memories would remain. Quaint and quiet scenes of dignified old men playing Chinese chess. Bent old women with moon-faced babes on their backs, bald Buddhist monks and elegant green tea ceremonies she’d never really seen at all. She’d show friend pictures of markets filled with nameless sea creatures and chuckle over her first experience eating dried squid. She packed coffee table conversation books with photos of Korean porcelain or black and white calligraphy; bamboo, magpies and lotus blossoms. She looked forward to displaying these back home.

* * *

George remained in his bedroom most of Saturday and Sunday, coming out only for meals and showers before returning to the streets at night. He did not see Marie all weekend. This was normal. It was easier to stay with a friend. She’d probably left Pusan for the weekend. She’d sleep on the midnight train and arrive home in time for Monday’s first class of sleepy salary men. George thought nothing of it as he walked to class Monday, his mind as blank as any other morning,! scraping his hung-over way through mutually hung-over classes. He tossed down cups of nerve-grinding machine coffee, mellowed with cups of green tea or hot powdered milk. He didn’t bother to glancing into Marie’s classroom. Eventually students came to George and said Marie was missing. George explained that her train must be late. They insisted George go to Miss Kwak’s office. But she would not be in until noon. George peered through the glass doors of Miss Kwak’s office and saw a fax. It was a message from Marie.

Dear Miss Kwak, I am sorry. I had to return home. My mother was so sick that I could not wait longer. I am sorry about all the money you loaned me. Thank you. . Please tell my students I miss them, Love Marie.

At the top of the page was a formal heading, Paradise Island Tours, Phuket. Thailand. George welcomed his new students.

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One Response to “Obstacles”

  1. Carri Scardina Says:

    This is great! I can’t wait to see more.

    Like

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