The most entertaining reply I get is that if I love Korea so much then I should just live there! Well, okay, I can do that. They tell me they’d rather die for lack of pennicillin than leave their beloved country. Whereas I’m a traitor. I have no loyalty to my homeland.
“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.
“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.
Jee Hae: Oh! Is like my duty officials long time no see!
Hyung Tae: Both
Jee Hae: However Hyung Tae, is woman you coupled together on foot short time your girlfriend?
Hyun Tae: She is. Is second year in high school but now gathers in eyes but height is big but deliberate. She is live same village is ready front-door next door house. It is thinking of going together inside my girlfriend this school if she graduates. Do you have a girlfriend?
Mee Hyun: No. My ideals seems is types if sincere. However is not now. Seeming is ideal is first type this man. Met him when it is welcome freshman. Felt that he is strong did couple crab love but plays game of push-up, chicken leg fight. Felt warm down there. I like strong man however he be ordinary. So be unpopular. However, I popularity man who is any and occurs well hate. Anyway, my ideal occurred seemed to. If I understood my jot. You have a girlfriend Jee Hyun?
Jee Hyun: Yes. I do not exist. Because I am tall. Seem to like short and cute. However, unlovable seniority in age is fine. Then may treat easy that go to school and is comfortable.
Jee Hae: Really? How is then my friend pulse la duplicity? She has a lot of cute pages although is seniority in ages.
Jee Hwan: She is my ideal type itself! Your ideal type what be?
Jee Hae: Such man of is ideal type teeth. However, Juniority I hate. New Year’s greeting is childish even if I do something. He fits to all conditions and it is a person to know inflect of time well. There is not around such a person smell. So, is finding.
Hyung Tae: Well, such is that will hard to get if too many things. It is my mind.
Jee Hae: I go to homework is left undone. See next.
Everyone: Yes! Again see!
Another old friend from back home stopped in Korea for holiday. He‘s on his third year as a high school English teacher in Japan. We all have our silly fantasies about living in Japan, and my friend confirmed most of them. But as a black man in Japan he‘s found personal intimacy close to impossible. Japanese girls, he says, want one thing from him. They don‘t need his name for this.
I took him out Saturday night. In the bars, college girls practiced English, asking questions about Japan, America, Korea and his opinions on each culture. He seemed relieved that none asked him to a hotel.
Honesty, personal intimacy and real friendship are not difficult to find in Korea. Getting into a Korean girl‘s pants, without the promise of love, usually is. Japan and Korea sometimes seem distant, not even in the same hemisphere. But in both countries foreign men find room for dissatisfaction.
Earlier, on our way to the bar, we passed a demonstration for the two dead middle school girls. I told my buddy about it and he hurried past. I lingered, waving hello and smiling at the high school kids. The result was typically Korean. “Hello foreigner! What‘s your name? Where are you from?” I told them, “Miguk nome imnida” They laughed and said in English “No. This is not about you. You are welcome. Welcome to Korea!”
Warm January afternoon. Neighbors open windows and set things out to air. Ajummas move back to the gardens for thawing veggies. The local tofu shop sets out crates of delicious steaming tofu cakes. The soft sour odor reaches my nose. A shit-dog trots up, sniffs the tofu, looks warily over each shoulder and lifts his leg.
Rita brews a fresh pot of Kona Coffee, just received via care package. The brew smells of lilac and strawberry, tastes pleasantly sweet, but the fragrance holds more flavor than the coffee itself. My teeth feel slippery and clean after a second cup. I open the coffeemaker’s lid. Inside are three melting balls of care package bath soap gel: strawberry and lilac. Where’s Caleb? Three cycles of vinegar later, the coffeemaker smells like pickled strawberries.
Sitting on a new bus with new, broken reclining seats. Bus starts forward and seat reclines more. We speed up and it reclines with the acceleration. If the bus stops the seat comes up. I move to the next (broken) seat.
My classroom is cold and I turn on the electric heater. Five minutes later it shuts off. Turn on again. Shuts off again, etc. Classroom chairs collapse when someone sits on them. A student sits in a desk and the legs splay out and collapse. The three printers break in weekly intervals.
I put 400 won in a coffee machine with no coffee. Broke, and I‘m out 400 won! I put my fist through it and wait for the bus. It passes so I holler fuck this country until the next bus stops.
Caleb sits in front of me crying. “Appah, mi-an! Mi-an! Mi-an!” His little body shakes and rocks. My temper has me in a fit.
It‘s difficult to record this. I have to stop and breathe, force myself to write. My temper does not cause physical abuse, nor does it cause neglect. I don’t know what to call it — sporadic, marginally controlled rage.
What happened was this: Caleb climbed onto a table to get his Sesame Street videos. He’s hidden them somewhere. Maybe he‘s broken them again, twenty dollars apiece. Any kid his age would do the same. Most parents would explain to their kid, punish him lightly if he disobeyed again. Most kids would sneak back and disobey.
In a way I am proud of his willingness to disobey. It shows he‘s got character, balls, his own agenda.
So this is my issue, not his. I’ve told him once, then told him again. Maybe told him three or four or five times yet he willfully disobeys, then I set into rage. I want to make an impression, but don’t know how to approach it effectively. Impulsively, to avoid spanking, I yell at him. I punch a wall and yell some more. Then I stick him in his room while I rage on outside the door. Then I go back and yell at him more, maybe spank him, yell at him for disobeying. He’s apologizing, crying, rocking, chewing on his finger and trying to be quiet.
The whole time I feel rotten. My mind is in a funk. I hate myself. I regret every word, every action. Shame makes me angrier. He isn’t physically bruised. Nothing broken. He‘s just shocked, fearing his father.
There is an overwhelming temptation to make excuses. People tell me to ask him nicely, ask him why did you disobey, Caleb? But he cannot explain yet, in Korean or English. Asking a two-year-old “Why?” in a language he doesn’t even know is expecting too much. At best he gives me an animated skit involving dance, water and a boat (he refers to these constantly).
What are my alternatives? A long walk; appah needs time out.