The sixth graders were more chatty and disruptive today but I don’t take it personally anymore. If I have to stop class five times so that they can calm down from Mountain Dew or hormones or whatever, so be it.
In my last class of the day, one girl stopped me as I was walking around checking writing.
“Teacher, 털!” She said, excitedly pointing between the dark hair on my arms and the matching dark hair on hers. Very few of my students have any noticeable arm hair.
“Hey, you’re right! Arm hair! Woohoo!” We bumped our arms together in a hairy high five approximation.
I decided a long time ago that society already made me shave my legs; I was not also going to willingly shave the perfectly soft and harmless hair on my arms. Last week, a fourth grade girl even pet my arm in fascination, like it was a small animal.
I do on occasion get embarrassed because, like many of my physical features here, it’s a standout.
But in a weird way, I’m glad my students get to see it. Representation matters, and there’s at least one girl who can feel comforted knowing her amazing and fabulous teacher lets the arm hair fly free.
We had the second debate class of this semester and were once again let down. Jenny reprimanded the students for failing to show up, and told them “I’m afraid that because of your insincerity this program will be canceled next year.” There was a smattering of apologies and promises but a leopard can’t change its spots.
Three overslept, one had a fever, and so our only attendees were the student VP, who was the sole attendee last time, Hyunyung, who was the sole attendee the day we went to the museum, and my son, boy #3 who I was surprised to see.
It was tough. Really tough. No matter what I prepare for the first hour, it’s always too difficult. I think I’m just not qualified for this. I can do one on one, I can do one on thirty, but I cannot do one on three kids who can’t or won’t talk.
I mentioned to Helen this week how tough it was getting the high schoolers to string a sentence together and she said if our debate class was in Changwon proper, rather than our small suburb, kids would be chomping at the bit to have a chance to practice with a native speaker.
Instead, I spent an hour guiding our trio through Would You Rather and one round of Madlibs.
During the second period, the kids were supposed to present one feature of Korean popular media. Hyunyung had forgotten her paper.
Boy #3 talked about the dark side of idol culture and the VP happily gave an overview of the group Seventeen, who you may remember was a favorite of one of my Seoul kids.
But that wasn’t enough to fill an hour, obviously, so Jenny and I tried to have a discussion and extend the topics.
It was like pulling teeth. Boy #3 blasted the “foolish government” and had some good insight about the movie Parasite while my other questions mostly fell flat: do you BTS faces challenges overseas? Did you watch Crash Landing on You? Was this artist better or worse in the past?
During the third period, Jenny left to pick up fast food for the kids which was her attempt to entice more people to show up (it didn’t work).
She had us play a game while she was gone and I felt a strong, intense cloud around Boy #3. I know that he and his girlfriend broke up over the summer, and I was worried upon hearing his strong feelings about politics. As I’ve mentioned, many politicians are using grievance politics, particularly misogyny, to stir up young male voters. As he just had his heart broken and is also facing an unpleasant mandatory military service, he is particularly vulnerable to this kind of politicking.
Jenny saved me from trying to have any more conversation when she showed up with a huge bag of fried chicken sandwiches.
I recognize that part of disappointment with this class stems from my larger frustration with Koreans being so terrified of speaking English with me that any possibility we have to grow closer remains a fantasy.
It came time to take of our masks and I didn’t want to. Why? I asked myself.
It felt horribly vulnerable and intimate to look and be looked at without half my face being covered.
The kids also seemed a little reluctant to peel off their masks but when they finally did I was surprised again. It’s impossible to guess what anyone will look like, but I’m always caught off guard by just how different people are.
My son put his mask to the side and I did too. He’s so young. The girls are so young. They’re really just babies. And for all the interesting and big-brained takes my son has, his face was a particular shock. His was a vulnerable, small, heart-shaped face.
That’s why I felt particularly affected when Jenny translated that he wants to drop out of school. If he gets into his mechanic program, he’d rather just go full time and start working.
Jenny told me to tell him not to drop out.
“At least finish high school. I know in the US it’s really tough to get any job without a GED.”
I thought again about what Helen said, that kids in the city proper fight for the best hagwons and compete for academic opportunities. And here I was, on the other side of the mountains, trying to convince my favorite student not to drop out of school.
After three hours of trying to get them all to talk, it was just too much.
My son tried to bust out of class without saying goodbye but Jenny corralled him and made him bid farewell to me.
I passed him when leaving the school and he seemed surprised to see me in my car. I waved goodbye to him as he was caught in a half bow.
It was in the teacher’s lounge of my travel school that I finally talked to the highly regarded 6-2 homeroom teacher. Yana had spoken highly of him for turning around the behavior of the homeroom class– compared to the zombie-like apathy of 6-1, 6-2 is a delight.
I only knew him to be young and aggressively polite; outside of 안녕하세요 we hadn’t spoken. Until this day.
I scooted by him to fill up my paper cup with water and he greeted me in English. It was a miracle I didn’t drop everything in surprise. No one willingly speaks to me in English.
Realizing that he had already passed the first level, I pushed to see how far I could go.
“Is that an iPhone?” I asked.
“Oh, yes it is.” He answered in crisp, clear English.
Level 2 cleared.
The first seal holding back the dam of all my unsaid conversations clicked open. I told him that my other students always think I’m some rich person but that the truth is in America my iPhone was cheaper than a Samsung. He reacted with appropriate surprise and the second seal was broken.
“There’s a question I always wanted to ask you,” he said.
I startled in surprise but sent him the go ahead.
“Where are you from?”
Seal number three was blown off the hinges and the flood burst forth. I can’t tell you what all I said, I temporarily blacked out from the overwhelming joy of speaking freely.
I just know that I concluded with a parable about the dangers of releasing exotic pets into the Everglades.
“There’s a picture of an anaconda that ate an alligator.” I said into his shocked face.
He didn’t stop my tirade and he laughed at all my jokes. My whole body pulsed light and I thought, I think… I just made a work friend.
While Yana is kind and Jenny is accommodating, none of my coworkers are on the same wavelength. “Anthony”, as the 6-2 teacher himself told me to call him much to my surprise (never met a Korean “Anthony” before), is around my age, younger I think, and also shares my single brain cell. He is also better at speaking English than all my English teaching coworkers.
It feels like a thousand years since I’ve had a friend I could tell ridiculous stories to for laughs. There’s usually an age barrier, or a language barrier.
Most of the time, I have to tailor my English to varying simplified levels for the other people in my life. It’s an unspeakable delight to let my mouth run off without facing blank stares; there’s nothing so depressing as wanting to laugh with someone only for them not to understand your joke.
There’s only so much laughing I can do for two.
I ran into Anthony again ten minutes before quitting time and couldn’t help but talk his ear off. I didn’t even get around to printing what I had come in to print.
“Do you like sashimi? If you want, you, your coteacher, and I can all go to a famous restaurant near the school.”
Thank you, Anthony, for being considerate enough to invite another female coworker.
I spent the rest of the day plotting how I can hang out with him often but without sending any romantic signals. Platonic friendships rule in this house!
Some days with sixth grade with hard, and some are entertaining like today, where the kids are juiced up on what I can only assume is pre-puberty hormones.
We started to learn about frequency, and I had them offer their own crazy sentences:
“How often do you poop?”
“How often do you lie to your mom?”
“How often do you fart in someone’s face?”
“How often do you punch your friend?”
I weaved through the desks to the tallest boy in class who sat up ramrod straight in shock. He’s a good kid, and so so easy to ruffle.
“So, how often do you punch your friend?” I held out a fan of cards and he drew a six of hearts.
“Six times… a day.” He said evenly. The class erupted into entertained shouts.
Later, I noticed that same tall boy air punching his friend and stopped mid sentence to look at him. The timing was just too good and I was going to capitalize on this comedic moment.
The entire class also stopped and turned in his direction. It took him a few more seconds of shadow boxing to realize thirty people were staring at him.
“How often do you punch your friend??” I asked him in mock outrage. The entire class burst into laughter and even from the front of the classroom I could feel his entire body go red.
I found his embarrassment delicious; torturing the sixth graders in this way gives me great joy.
I also became culturally relevant again. As I prowled the back of class looking for a victim, one girl had a mini calendar with k-pop boys I don’t know well.
“Who are they?” I asked, pausing my hunt for a student to pull a card.
“Idol singers,” she replied.
“Yes, I know,” I laughed, “which group?”
Well, it looks like I can relate to my students after all! BTS has lost popularity with the new elementary kids in favor of newer and ever younger idols, but I could shine here.
“Oh? I went to their concert.”
She and the friends around her flipped out. It is a weird coincidence. I only went because a friend invited me along and I love the energy of kpop concerts. I should have gone to more before COVID…
“Yep, before COVID.” I moved on to my next victim, then suddenly sung a few bars of the only song I can remember, “I don’t speak in English, yeah yeah, oh oh”. They were even more shocked and I felt smugly proud about having some relative experience to share with the youth.
And in another surprise twist, Jack paused eating his fried rice to talk about the news.
“I just don’t understand how they can treat women like cows or pigs,” he commented about the situation in Afghanistan. “Don’t they have mothers?”
“Maybe it’s because they feel weak so they treat women poorly to feel more powerful.” I said.
“I’m a feminist,” he said simply and I blinked in surprise. The word has been twisted by online misogynists to be a slur; see their attempt to smear An San, the Olympic gold medalist in archery.
“Men should protect women and girls and children,” he continued.
Well, this was not the way I ever expected lunch to go, but I’m so happy to meet a man that’s straightforward in his belief of equality. Now if only we could convince 70% of Korean men in their 20s to agree…
After a morning of technical difficulties in my first attempt at teaching online, and last as our school will go back offline next week, I spent the afternoon watching documentaries.
About halfway through the one about the attack on the US Capitol, Jack looked over my shoulder quizzically. He couldn’t read the title card and watching clashes between people in riot gear asked me, “is that Afghanistan?”
I sat with the entire weight of the implication from his statement for a moment before answering, “No. It’s from the US Capitol siege.”
He looked at me blankly.
I couldn’t explain the enormity of it all and just repeated, “in the US.” He had no idea what I was talking about then the clock hit 4:15 and he was packing up to leave.
Helen trailed out soon after leaving me and the chatty sub, MJ.
MJ is the MVP.
I started to pack up, too, when she told me that today was our vice president’s last day. He had finally been granted transfer to Geoje, which is where he had been commuting from every day. I know from experience it’s at least a one hour commute plus a 5,000 won charge each way to cross the mighty bridge.
Every day our poor VP was paying nearly ten dollars and sitting for two hours in the car to work at our school.
“We should say goodbye to him. Let’s go together,” she offered and I have never been so grateful.
We walked across the hall and into the teacher’s office. The other ladies working warmly greeted us, and I know most of them already from hallway interludes or the one occasion over the summer I asked to borrow a vacuum.
I didn’t know quite what to say in Korean so I gave him my thanks in English. He looked between MJ and I and admitted he didn’t know English well.
I was stumped– I knew he was finally getting a job closer to home, and wanted to congratulate him. But he didn’t know that I knew that, and it might seem rude of me to congratulate him for leaving.
What I came up with, in my infinite genius, was:
A Konglish catch phrase that means “you can do it!”
He laughed and repeated it back to me, then spoke briefly to us. I think the gist was, “I didn’t know you well but good work.”
I recovered my senses and managed to bow deeply and say 수고하셨습니다 which is a standard farewell and roughly means “you worked hard”. It’s also used as a farewell in the imperative tense when one is going off to work; MJ says it to me when I’m leaving our office to teach the kiddos in the morning, and uses it in past tense when I get back.
If I think about it, MJ might just be a polite person in general. She has a sort of Southern grace that the women in my family carry. Maybe some of it comes from the fact that she has two preteen children.
We left the office after another goodbye and walked out of the school together to part ways at the road.
“Bye bye!” she said, taking a sharp left to find her ride (her husband).
The aftermath of a getaway trip to Andong: the tendons in the top of my feet hurt. Did the mannequins at the museum curse me?
Even though Andong is just an hour away from Gyeongju, the vibe could not be more different. Andong feels like a secret buried in the mountains, and many of the historical sites are tucked in valleys or next to cliffs– cliffs! I didn’t know Korea had cliffs.
Andong looks different than any part of mainland Korea I’ve seen so far. The river that runs all the way through town cuts an impressive edge, so much so that I had to research if it was manmade. The land stops abruptly at turquoise green water.
I want to buy a house there.
Also unlike Gyeongju, this was a solo trip. I’m sorry to all my friends but I love solo travel. I can eat when I want, sleep when I want, and find myself in the most unexpected of situations.
I had planned to visit the Confucian Academy for history and moreso because it was a filming site for a drama I’ve been streaming. But I didn’t realize there was more than one ancient Confucian academy and ended up an hour away from downtown at an impressive village which turned out to be the home of an extremely important scholar.
I peered into an old well, stared at a lotus garden, wandered in and around old libraries, and pretended I could read the hanja house plaque the man himself had written five hundred years ago.
A woman with a badge framed by her umbrella like an old Christian saint stopped me. I briefly wondered if this was another cult initiation attempt.
She asked if she could explain the history of the place to me, and noting I could understand her, proceeded in Korean. I don’t know history words very well since I am but an intermediate student but I followed along better than expected. When I recounted to my teacher in Busan that I had understood about fifty percent, she cheered.
I noticed with some surprise that she referred to Toegye Yi Hwang, the man of the hour, in referential terms. Was she perhaps a Confucian scholar and daylight tour guide? She asked me to procure a 1,000 won note and I thought, oh here it comes, some sort of scheme. But I acquiesced, curious to where this was going, and she pointed out that the man on the bill was the esteemed scholar of this domain and teacher at this academy centuries ago. I put the note back in my wallet with no attempts on her part at trickery. She proceeded to lecture and I listened without worry.
“You know, King Sejong invented Hangeul in 14xx.”
“What?” I asked dumbly, slow on Korean numbers still.
Like Confucian students used to do, she picked up a sharp rock and wrote the year in the wet dirt between us.
I held back a laugh. King Sejong invented the great Korean writing system in the 15th century, but nobles refused to use such easily accessible script and continued recording all important documents in Chinese script; Korean, like many other languages in the region, used Chinese characters to write its own language. So in order to study Korean history, you’ll likely need a degree in Traditional Chinese to read documents before Hangeul came into widespread use after Japanese occupation.
I asked if any women attended this school, already knowing the answer.
“They didn’t. Scholars believed female students would cause distraction for male students. But the first school for women was established in 1910.”
I didn’t comment that this was likely due to Japanese imperialism. Part of me felt frustrated at history, and part of me was personally frustrated at Korea because I imagine I would have been, among the many jobs of Korean past, a scholar. But as a woman, that would have been completely off limits to me. My impossible dream, ruined by reality!
That was a theme for the two days I was in Andong; at the Confucian museum, at the Folk History Museum. It felt like all dioramas and plaques could be summed up as “Here, you can see the lives of scholars, nobles, archers, novelists, poets, painters. Oh and women were there too, in the kitchen.”
I felt incredibly sad for my female ancestors. How much had we lost by valuing women as tools rather than tool makers? What amazing inventions and discoveries might we have had if girls were allowed to attend school and give counsel? And then I felt a creeping fear: for so long, women had so little. Our freedoms were gained so recently and I realized, could be lost so easily, too.
If women had been relegated to a single job for most of history, what tenuous thread was keeping us from falling back? Was there a near future where I would lose the life I know?
I hoped that my female ancestors, in spite of their few choices, lived joyous lives. And I hoped that I was doing well to honor their memory by making my own choices.
Luckily, the parade of my thoughts was stopped quite literally by the museum attendant.
“You should try going to the VR experience center,” she said, gesturing from the massive lobby of the Confucian Museum to another stone building on the right.
I wandered to the VR center, unsure of what to expect, and even then, I’m sure I couldn’t have imagined the following scenario.
Another older woman behind the counter greeted me, then led us into a room with a giant screen. She showed me how to play a game where we threw plastic ball pit balls at a screen to kill various monsters. I thought she would leave but seeing as I was the only person in the museum, and maybe the only visitor she’d had all day, we played together til the end.
She then hooked me up to a VR station where I followed a guiding voice that took me on a very boring tour of the archives of the museum. Literally just looking at shelves. It didn’t need to be VR and was in fact probably made worse by overusing technology.
I thought the experience would blandly end there but the woman, much like the woman at the academy, saw a secret flashing “teach me!” sign over my head and led me through the museum, explaining in Korean how books used to be painstakingly made over three generations because wooden printing blocks were carved by hand.
“It took a long time and a lot of money. It was usually the grandchildren who could finally release the original author’s work.”
So then only rich people could publish books? I asked. She seemed confused.
She took me next to the window where we could peer in at hundreds of old hanja house plaques and wooden book plates.
“This is read from right to left,” she explained. I was surprised. Modern Chinese is written from left to right like English.
We were interrupted suddenly by a young guy who was too good looking to be working at an exhibit an hour away from any city but I supposed he might have been a student at the Confucian Studies Center attached to the museum.
They say Japan had ninjas and Korea had scholars.
The young guy continued down the hallway with his iced coffee while a door bell tinkled and voices of kids floated up the stairs.
“I’m sorry, there are more visitors. Please take your time to look around the museum,” my impromptu guide said, leaving me alone on the second floor.
This time I was thankful that many of the displays didn’t have English subtitles because I did not have the focus to concentrate on reading any more signs.
I finally weaved my way out of the museum, handsome man long gone, and drove down the two lane road to my next destination.
I wandered through a village then drove down from the mountains to the longest wooden bridge in Korea. There were only a few restaurants to choose from and I ordered Andong guksu from a local place run by a clan of older women.
After I tossed my shoes onto the shelf outside, I made my way barefoot through the restaurant and ordered. The woman complimented my pronunciation and looks then we chatted a bit about how long I’ve been in Korea. This was the first of many times I had this conversation in Andong, and it was nice to be treated as a tourist.
The news of a foreign woman speaking Korean and eating enough for three must have made its way to the kitchen because suddenly a short woman with short cropped hair and the biggest BDE appeared at my side to ask if I wanted a shot.
“I want to but I have to drive,” I lamented.
“Aw shucks,” she said, then appeared five minutes later to ask if I needed water, which was already on the table.
When I finally stuffed as much as I could into my belly, which was not even half of what I ordered (the perils of solo travel), I exited the side dining area to find the three women chatting at the table by the register.
Ms. BDE complimented my good skin and I told all three ladies that they were pretty. Women support women!
We talked some about the drive up here from Changwon and I extolled my love for Gyeongsang people. It’s not a trip unless I can get a dig in about Seoul people. Listen, I love my old coworkers but it’s true what they say about city folk!
I left feeling warm and fuzzy then drove through extreme darkness to get to the hanok for my overnight stay. The roads were narrow and I feared sliding off the dirt road and into the river.
I finally made it to the UNESCO house and slept solidly on floor mats while listening to the sounds of nature. The next morning, I was able to greet the owner fully and we shared coffee.
Now here is a lesson I learned that day:
Speaking Korean opens doors but sometimes doors I would have rather left shut.
The two Korean college girls studying architecture also shared coffee with us in the open air courtyard though the male hanok owner and I dominated most of the conversation. He insisted on taking pictures for me which was useful because otherwise I would have had not a single photo of me.
The girls, maybe with some foresight, headed out for the day and the owner revealed that he is drinking buddies with the superintendent of my county’s entire educational province. For a moment I considered asking him if there was any news about the predatory teacher who was being investigated, the superintendent would surely know, but stopped when he handed me his own business card.
“I’m a reporter for Daegu Ilbo.”
I keep up with Korean politics and know that Ilbo is an extremely conservative paper credited for stirring up controversy and misrepresenting news. One branch recently photographed Afghan refugees in the most unflattering light possible to dissuade people from accepting foreigners onto Korean soil.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised; Daegu is the conservative stronghold of Korea and also the starting point for the first mass wave of COVID spread by its local cult, the Shincheonji.
The hanok owner also begged me for English phone lessons. I told him it’s against my contract, and repeated myself when he insisted.
Sir, you cannot afford me!
In any case, I ended up with his business card and phone number. It’s best to collect contacts, however… unexpected they may be.
I made it out of there eventually, not without a handful of souvenirs and a sprig of applemint courtesy of the hanok owner, and spent the rest of the day hitting all the sites I hadn’t.
Most people seemed to flock to the traditional villages for Instagram photos because at every museum I visited, I was the only one haunting the halls.
Perhaps my favorite, though incredibly small, museum was the Traditional Food and Soju museum. It was a small three-room museum taking up the bottom floor of a musty building in the factory side of town. Part of the parking lot was taken up by an open shed with random equipment.
I shrugged and continued on; a lot of specialty museums on southeast America are set up the same way.
There were large dioramas and rows of glass cases filled with prop food to show meals of kings and queens, the drinking seasons, weddings, and more. The method to make fake food is incredibly interesting and I had already spent part of my earlier summer vacation watching talented women put together prop meals for movies and restaurants down one of many YouTube rabbit holes.
A man who was not the man that opened the museum doors for me asked where I was from and how long I had been in Korea. I engaged with him politely but not too much as I really did want to thoroughly examine everything in the tiny museum. I commend the translators for the signs as well; whoever wrote the English explanations did a fantastic job. The more popular museums have comprehensible but awkward to incomprehensible and alien English translations.
So I made my way through that museum, considered buying specialty Andong soju, then continued on. By the end of the last night my feet were rubbed raw from my wet sandals but that didn’t stop me from shopping. The young woman at the local clothing shop gave me a discount even though I didn’t qualify.
“This dress is thirty percent off only if you pay in cash.”
“Uh… I have ten thousand won?” I proposed, holding both out my debit card and the cash.
She acquiesced and new summer items were acquired.
Koreans seem to take a certain kind of shine to me which I recognize is 30% aura and likely 70% white foreigner. But I’ll take the magic where I can get it!
A friend deftly pointed out that I have traded relationships for agency, albeit limited, when I switched schools. I am free to plan how I like, although unfortunately I have to ask Jack and Helen every week for a schedule since they seem reluctant to give me information all at once.
Towards the end of this semester Jack leaned over to me after Helen had exclaimed surprise in Korean of how far along in the book he was.
“We’re ahead so we can use the last four weeks for review,” he told me.
There is no “we” in this mistake, Jack, you were the one who told me what chapter to do every week! We also have T minus one week until the spring semester begins and I have no confirmation if classes will be on or offline, though to be fair that’s more of an Asia Time problem.
So while I have some agency in planning– those fourth graders WILL sing every class– I don’t have an S or C or H or G. I don’t need to be friends with my coworkers… but it would be nice.
As I sit in another week of contractually obligated desk warming during summer vacation, I try to remember it’s not all useless. I have A/C and internet access and with zero oversight, I can watch movies or study Korean or take my hour lunch on the other side of town.
Fall draws closer and I find myself falling into nostalgia. Was it really a year ago that I moved in with House Owner and Freshman? The crisp breeze, the slow and easy making of drip coffee in the morning, writing essays, studying at a cafe, sitting on the floor with my roommates until 2 in the morning chatting about anything. I miss those days.
Jinhae is nice in the sense that it’s small and is close to places I’d never think to visit, like all the small islands, which are much more accessible. But as fall begins, I find that I miss cafes and student life and more than one hamburger restaurant choice.
With the blink of an eye, fall semester is upon us. COVID keeps tearing down plans and thus I set up my house of cards with a shaky hand. Shall I stay? Shall I find a job in Busan? Shall I go back to school? Every time I go to place the last card on top, a stiff breeze knocks it all down and I have to start again.
I drove to meet some friends for archery, all the while wanting to turn around to crawl back into bed and bemoan my stupidity at eating the fried chicken for lunch that gave me tummy troubles the night prior.
“You know this will make you feel better. Meeting people when you’re in a funk always makes you feel better. Just go.”
I did have to use my emergency Starbucks napkins in the dingy archery range toilet paper-less bathroom while I waited for the two public transit users to arrive.
It was… good. As my rational brain promised.
The older archery lady asked me to translate her instructions to the other two which I did gleefully, although incompletely. She let us shoot an additional ten arrows for free, partly as a complimentary service and partly because I got confused with numbers and she took pity on me.
As with surfing, I felt the rising tide of my perfectionism take over, but I allowed myself to recognize that it’s useful. I enjoy getting better. My arrows got closer and closer to the center and I preened whenever the archery mistress looked over between setting up new couples. She traded my lady bow for a big man bow and I felt that I could actually shoot someone mortally with it. Such power!
My gym routine has progressed to actual pullups and pushups so my left arm (surprisingly the holding arm is much more strained than the pulling arm) was sore but not useless after 50 shots. It felt nice to be good at something, and to be mildly useful for my limited language skills.
The three of us then trekked from the archery range to Starbucks, after the mistress of arrows gave us lollipops and a coupon for five free arrows next time, plus a punch card. Much like the arcade near PNU, I’ve found another spot to relieve stress.
One of the friends told us happily that she’s leaving Korea in November to pursue higher education in airplane electronic panel installation. It made me want to go to grad school. For what? Ha, I don’t know.
We parted ways, my stomach still in tatters from questionable fried chicken, and I vowed once again to catch the sunset. En route, a sign pointed to the “Marine Filming Site”. I had been meaning to take a peek ever since I saw its marker on the local map and decided to kill time before sunset wandering the grounds.
Here at the park, dozens of dramas I’ve never seen have been filmed. Mr. Sunshine, Hwarang, and more. The architecture didn’t seem to belong to one particular era which boggled me a bit after spending two days in a city modeled after distinct Joseon era housing.
It was almost like a bible camp experience. Few areas were roped off and I could go in and out of these building constructed specifically for filming. I imagined a chase scene here, a betrayal there, a reckoning in the town square. The most interesting building looked a lot like the smithery from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. There was a towering clay chimney in the middle surrounded by giant wooden wheels and fire pits. What was filmed here? It must have been terrifying.
The mood was briefly punctuated by a group on a speed boat zipping through the bay blasting pop music.
One pair of friends seemed mildly surprised that a foreigner had rolled up; I hoped they hadn’t witnessed my atrocious attempt at parking in the most horrifically laid out parking lot down the road. Other than that, I was free to take pictures without gawking and sent out thanks again that the people of Gyeongnam had more manners than those in Seoul, who always felt the need to urgently point out to their friends that I was a foreigner. Um, I can hear you and yes, I also know that I am? Why are you so shocked in the capital city where you can see foreigners every day?
So odd. I never figured that out. Very rarely have I ever felt like a sore thumb in more rural areas, which is ironic. Maybe manners are at play, or non-Seoul folk just don’t have time to worry about that when they could be at the beach.
After I satisfied my fill of photos, I continued the drive through Masan to a highly rated cafe. My compact car screeched in defiance as I pushed her up a 45 degree hill to get to the parking lot.
We were not disappointed.
I almost thought the cafe was deserted until I pulled the glass doors open. Two large men stood shoulder to shoulder behind the wooden counter, nearly too big to make espressos without knocking elbows. They looked like bouncers and should I spill a drink, they could pick me up by the back of my shirt and easily toss me out.
The two stood there at full attention while I perused the menu, pretending like I wasn’t going to order what I always order. I thought back to the name of the cafe which means “Cafe Chubby” and wondered if the men named it themselves. They happily took my order while I looked out the glass walls and decided where on the balcony to sit. A couple slouched in one of the many bean bag chairs took me by surprise. Were they sleeping?
I carried my order out to the lawn, in the opposite corner of the couple, and snapped a dozen pictures. A family soon rolled up with two young boys, the youngest about three and so much like S’s son that I wanted to text her immediately.
The youngest was a true comedian. He came up to my pair of beanbags and drummed out a beat. I told the mom I didn’t mind to which she immediately said, “your Korean is good” and as this social contract dictates, I replied, “no, I’m really not.”
I looked at him and said hello in Korean. He mumbled, “hellmdmdlfafd” and his dad and I laughed.
Later, he danced to the beat of a rowdy group blasting music on a boat, unbelievably it was the same boat from the movie bay, now in the ocean far below. He also mimicked an elaborate greeting and bow to his parents, reminiscent of the Bare Bears clip, and I turned away so the parents wouldn’t misunderstand my laughter.
I waited eagerly for the sunset but had to block the setting rays until suddenly there was a rustling at my side.
“If it’s too bright, you can use this,” said the slighter of the two linebacker baristas. He produced an umbrella and a sun hat to which I squealed in delight.
Don’t mind if I do!
I was the only one to receive the offer, though I was also the only one conspicuously squinting into the sun.
Earlier in the day over iced tea, one of the friends had mentioned her cousin’s “pretty privilege”, which seems by her definition less about appearance and more about aura.
“Everywhere she goes, she gets free stuff. It’s always been like that. She even got Broadway tickets for $5 from a random guy on the street. She’s in Italy now and my other cousins are saying how even there she’s being showered with random gifts.” The cousin has a certain presence that commands, my friend mentioned, and calmly added that those sorts of things never happen to her. She didn’t seem envious, just quietly amazed.
“She asked me once in college to go to Vegas with her that day and fly back immediately. Of course I said no. Why would I only want to go to the airport? But she gets hyped about the thrill of it”. I wondered at the cousin’s bank account and thought it’s probably good she does get random free gifts.
So I sat on the fake grass deck taking selfies in my borrowed hat and marveled that maybe I, too, have some of this magic. I did get us extra free arrows at the archery range. And last month the male barista at the local cafe offered me free refills on coffee which is not at all Korean custom… Old people also give me candy or share their drinks with me on the hiking trail.
Can I maybe count myself among this special population with a presence that invites random acts of generosity? I like to believe just a little bit. All of these recent events have happened with my mask firmly in place so maybe my aura advertises my meager bank account and people take pity.
The male half of the couple canoodling in the far corner seemed suspicious of my thoughts, however, and kept looking at me like the Fry meme.
Surely he had heard all the comments about my Korean and couldn’t quite believe that a foreigner had made it to this faraway cafe. Take a picture, bro, it’ll last longer!
Despite my best efforts, sunset was missed once again. How? I was facing due east! Surely science must know!
For the rest of the year, the direction of sunset pivots about this westerly point, moving northerly in winter, and towards the south in summer. (In the northern hemisphere, the sunset tends more northerly in summer and more southerly in winter.)
Well, that explains it! I’ll have to wait to the equinox to see the exact sunset I want; here in Gyeongnam province, mountains block my view so I have to plan far in advance what point I’ll go to in order to see the biggest chunk of the setting sun.
I rolled down my windows to hear the sounds of summer and drove carefully through winding mountain roads, praying the yellow light on my gas tank could hold out just a little longer. My little coffee bean of a car and I managed to roll into a station on fumes where two young men were carefully navigating a popsicle blue Mercedes into a clear-boxed moving truck. If you have to be towed, do it in style.
The little magical moments of the day had not ended; I decided to finally test out the validated parking for the gym but as easily as I pulled in for parking, the metal gate at the gym refused to let me pass, no matter how many times I scanned my fingerprint.
One older man, another regular and also someone I consider my gym buddy (he doesn’t know that) took pity on me and leaned over the child-proof fence to assist. He instructed me to enter my birth year but the password was six digits long. A tall willowy guy appeared behind me and the man passed me off in relief; the kid broke out amazing English and I wondered where in the world he’d learned. It’s not like Jinhae is a particularly international city. Maybe he’s a highly tutored high schooler, or a new navy recruit.
When I finally pushed my way through, I made sure to signal thanks to my gym buddy. It’s always the older people at the gym who have saved me from myself.
I’m back at the office today but feel like my head has been slightly righted. Whether by the fresh air, the kind helpers, the adventure of driving on near empty, the experience of shooting arrows and imagining myself to be riding a horse into battle, I can’t say.
My friend and I took a lovely one night stay in Gyeongju, the original center of the Silla Kingdom. Gyeongju looked like the Korea I had always seen in tourist guidebooks but had never experienced: rice paddies, fields of tombs like mosquito bites, things that were old, things that were new but built in the traditional style.
It was especially nice since my school made a little mistake.
One of Jack’s camp kids ended up positive with COVID and as a result, Helen texted me the following Monday, my vacation day, to wait and see if I would also need to be tested. Fine. I stayed home all day waiting for a follow up and at 4:30pm, asked her for more details. She hadn’t received word from the school nurse who had been compiling the list to begin with and called Jack, instead.
“Oh yeah, everybody who was at school went to campus to get tested today.” He told her.
Everyone… but me.
I was so annoyed. Did not one person think, huh, that’s weird, our foreign teacher never showed up for the mandatory testing. Guess we should… do nothing?
So I wasted a whole day waiting, and then another, as I had to trek to the community center by myself to get a COVID test and then wait an additional 24 hours for results. I told Helen, “well, there go my three days of vacation.”
“Sorry about that,” she texted back.
I guess the school didn’t feel remorseful enough to tack those wasted days back on to my vacation total…
But even between the COVID test and the Gyeongju trip, I’ve entered a weird summer funk. I can’t tell if it’s seasonal depression or just another existential crisis.
Amidst a news cycle that grows continuously more depressing– Afghanistan, China’s crackdown on English education and therefore the evaporation of any of my China plans, billionaire space race, delta variant– I vacillate between devoting myself to a greater cause or moving to a house deep in the mountains with my herd of rescue dogs.
Sitting in mandatory office hours where I have no assigned or expected work, I feel especially useless.
For the first time in two years, I wondered today if I’ve finally hit the wall of Korea fatigue, where one inherently knows when it’s time to go.
The path to Korean fluency seems endless. I miss pre-pandemic life. I feel disconnected from my school. My work computer sucks.
I’m happy with my school placement but I don’t feel particularly connected like I did, for better or worse, to my school in Seoul. I love my kids but also know that I am easily replaceable by someone with a quarter of the passion or experience, so long as they fill the gap for “foreign native teacher”, which can feel almost demeaning at times. Like a cog in a machine.
But I also have been unable to travel, unable to see strangers’ faces, unable to go clubbing or even walk on the beach without a mask. Pandemic life seems endless.
I feel like I’m circling the answer but I’m not quite there yet. Why am I in such a rush?
I don’t want to give up on Korea plans because the pandemic wore me down. But I also want to live up to my full potential. I want to astound people. Yet who can I ask for advice? There are the corporate friends and the doctor friends and the lawyer friends but no one that has straddled the border of two worlds.
I am a perfectionist, and the “not good enough” continues to batter the inside of my head during these lonely summer office hours.
My desires are pulling me in a hundred directions and my body is paying the price.
I want to be an expert. In what, I can’t say. But I desperately am craving money, power, and recognition. I grew up being told I would change the world, and now I feel that prophecy hang around my neck like a chain that gets tighter every year I don’t accomplish the impossible. I was supposed to be living a life that made people gasp in awe and run hot with envy.
There is a constant thread of “not good enough not good enough” that runs in the back of my head.
Should I go to med school? But I hate hospitals and biochemistry.
Should I be a lawyer? But I lose focus reading legal papers after half a page.
Should I run for office? I’m no good at shmoozing and don’t enjoy campaigning.
Should I be CEO? Sure, but of what?
I’m supposed to be amazing but I’m only average. I feel the weight of mediocrity, especially when I read about kings and nobles at every Korean history museum, and feel jealousy rather than mild fascination.
I want to be the best, but I don’t know in what.
I want to be the best and I also want everything all at once.
I want to market my skills for a profit, but do I have any? Is it even possible to monetize what I can do? Should I go back and specialize in… something?
I am waiting for enlightenment. Often I’m afraid I’ll wait until the end of time and die never meeting my potential. Whatever “potential” means.
I feel guilty for not meeting a goal whose parameters I don’t even know.
I want to be an entrepreneur and a clothing designer and a TV star. I want to be a cafe owner and Olympian and travelling doctor. I want to be a mermaid and an explorer and a storyteller. I want to be respected and I want financial freedom.
Mostly I want to be wealthy; the kind of wealthy that demands respect, because hyper capitalism only respects money. Who wouldn’t buy power and esteem with money, if one had it?
Being good is not enough. Living well is not enough. I’m supposed to have a single dream that I follow with near manic fervor. But I’m nearing 30 and still don’t know what that is.
I don’t know how far I have to go to be better. I don’t know what it means to be the best, but I want it, desperately.