Two Years in Korea: Eight Years Later

Mandu and kimchi. Dinner of champions.

Today was the day that I decided to finally go to the Korean market to get groceries, and I only left with a few things. No short-grain rice. I don’t know why I didn’t get any. But eating Korean food reminds me of the feeling I had at reinvention #2, a feeling I didn’t have during reinvention #3 that I hope to experience again now during reinvention #4.

South Korea is apparently no longer the hotspot for teaching English as a second language. That’s China now. But I do look back fondly and yet no so fondly on my years there.

I worked at one hagwon from July 2010 to September 2011, and then a second one from January 2012 to January 2013. It was during this time that I lost complete track of American pop culture, which was actually quite a relief. It was a time when I was rediscovering myself, building up a nest egg, but also enduring some of the most toxic situations I have ever dealt with.

Teaching English in South Korea frankly requires a certain mindset that most American adults who are willing to travel overseas to teach for a year do not possess:

You need to have the kind of can-do attitude of someone who is willing to be blindfolded and bent over a barrel with their pants down and smile the entire time. This is what people mean when they say that the people who don’t like their experience in Korea don’t have the right attitude. That’s right; most people don’t have the “right attitude” because you’d have to be ten years or old stupid to have it. You can’t be intrepid or independent, which is pretty much what you need to move overseas to teach for a year in a foreign land in which your housing, your visa, your bank account, and your privacy are pretty much at the whim of your employer, and still be naive and pliable enough to be wound up and sent to putter in any direction your employer chooses.

You will get screwed on something, whether it’s health insurance, pension, severance pay, or something else if you work for a private company.

You will definitely be forced to come to work and be a janitor when the rest of the country is staying home during a typhoon.

If you’re white, you will definitely be paraded around in front of rich Korean parents who can decide if you’re white enough to teach English.

You will definitely be forced to come to work and teach even if you’re so sick you can’t stand up, even if you’re puking in the classroom, even if you’re pretty sure you’re going to die.

You will not be given time, space, or have your boundaries honored.

You will be expected to be morally flexible and to throw your fellow teachers under the bus.

You will be expected to teach English incorrectly and be told that you don’t know anything about your own language when you suggest something different.

And the truth is that I had the absolutely wrong attitude for being an English teacher in Seoul. I don’t consider that a bad thing, since this attitude that didn’t work in Seoul very much works for me as a lawyer, and while all of my clients are too young to really vocalize it or understand the difference, they would probably not want to be assigned an attorney who happily bends over a barrel with her pants down and always remembers to smile. I have a feeling that no one wants an astrologer or a writer like that, either. I can’t imagine that anyone who loves me or would love me would prefer that I be so pliable by anyone dangling a carrot in front of me.

The problem is one of perspective, and in a world like that, you can lose perspective on the most important things:

  • It’s only a one-year teaching contract.
  • No one in America or Canada gives a flying fuck what you did in Korea anyway.
  • The vast majority of Koreans aren’t anything like the shady shits who run hagwons.
  • You’re still a foreigner and a commodity, and if you think otherwise, find out what happens if you ever stand up for yourself.

I went to Seoul because when I found out that I could teach English overseas, I had four options, and South Korea paid the most and was also the country I knew the least about from the options I had. Something about Korea scared and intrigued me the most, as if I was being called there by some distant voice to finish some work there, so I felt that that I just had to go there.

Was it karma? Because I still don’t know the reason why this country instead of Thailand, Vietnam, or China.

And you know, I got used to it very quickly. I learned to read the language in a couple weeks but never learned to speak it. I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was white, strawberry blonde, and a bit older than most foreign teachers and liked my alone time.

It was at once very real and very not real at all, as if I were immersed in someone else’s story with some creative license to create my character as I saw her in the story.

When I was in Korea, Boomers always told me how grateful the Koreans were that we were there. Mind you, this was not coming from any Boomer who had ever spent time in Korea. Any Boomer who spent time in Korea was scared for me because they remember what it was like in the 60s and wanted me to be sure to never get malaria or cholera.

To some Koreans, we’re either a necessary evil or a vestigial tale from a wild storybook that they’d like to close the cover on. To some, we’re friends; and to some others, we’re rodeo clowns walking amongst men without a shred of self-awareness, acting as if we’re normal.

The weirdest thing about teaching ESL in South Korea? The mandatory boot-licking.

You really do need “the right attitude” in order to engage in the mandatory boot-licking that is a very edifying experience for an American. South Korea is jingoistic in ways that only America is jingoistic. Just before I went to teach in Seoul, there was an article in one of the major newspapers about how Michael Phelps is actually Korean, because he has some native American ancestry, and Koreans, for whatever crazy reason, believe that all indigenous Americans came from the Korean peninsula.

Coming from a country that still insists that it’s #1 in all the good stuff when it’s demonstrably not, it’s interesting to both be forced to be a contributing writer for South Korea’s never-ending love letter to itself, but also interesting because surprisingly, Americans aren’t really as sensitive to being told that they’re not the center of the universe, because we don’t have the Korean War or World War II to make us feel sorry for ourselves and to have it as an excuse for explaining away why we grossly exaggerate our importance to the rest of the world.

The second year I was in Korea, there was a drunk Korean guy who picked a fight with a homeless guy in New York City, got pushed onto the subway tracks, and someone took a picture, but no one helped him, and he got hit by a train and died.

This is really sad, but also, having lived in New York for a while and knowing well the cardinal rule that you don’t yell back at crazy people, and that this guy probably didn’t realize that Confucianism won’t protect him in America, I could only “why the fuck did he pick a fight with a crazy man in the first place? ” Now, we don’t blame the victims, but if you had read the Korean newspapers, the story was basically that this man was a saint trying to help a terrible BLACK man who was lashing out violently at people (racism is normal there. I was often asked if I was scared of black people, because Koreans truly believed that black Americans walked around America shooting people left and right). One of the local newspapers read that the entire nation – the entire nation of America, that is – was in mourning over this tragedy. When I heard that, I laughed and had to explain to my Korean co-workers that as a nation, we rarely mourn all together as a nation, even for people we all know and that a lot of people like, like Mr. Rogers.

I was told that I was wrong about that.

The entire nation WAS in mourning.

I was told this by an American bootlicker.

One of the things you will also notice if you teach there is that they have a very tenuous relationship with America. We are a necessary evil, but we are the source of all evil. We are portrayed as violent, stupid, fat, and immoral. We are portrayed this way in a lot of the media we have to use to teach, even in media created by Americans.

Case in point: I got into arguments at my second job for a variety of reasons. Now, because Korea is Confucian, your boss is always right, even when they’re lying and it’s obvious. I couldn’t deal with this. I figured you hired an American for a reason. I once got in trouble for correcting my boss and saying no, Americans actually eat fruits and vegetables, and we grow them, too. Ever heard of California? In fact, we prefer vegetables fresh, which is why Korean food hasn’t really picked up here. Apparently, that was not only a lie — I couldn’t possibly know what Americans like to eat — and yes, Americans are all desperate to eat kimchi, crying out in the night for fermented cabbage.

Now, I love kimchi, but if you give me a choice between kimchi and a nice Caprese salad, I’m having the salad. In fact, if the choice is a nice steak or bulgogi, I’m going American and sticking with the steak.

I also refused to edit a worksheet that basically said that only white people lie and Koreans are always honest. I also refused to believe that Americans only eat hamburgers, pizza, and Coca-Cola, or that we all own guns and shoot each other all the time, or that only Americans can become obese or die of AIDS. Literally, when I was there, there were a lot of people who thought it was impossible for Koreans to get AIDS, and while the rest of us non-Korean alien residents were given EXTENSIVE STD tests, they didn’t give any to any alien residents of Korean descent.

I have also been told, more than once by my Korean handlers, that only white people can be alcoholics, even though everyone knew about Blackout Korea before they even arrived. This may actually be why kimchi eating has been associated with stomach cancer; I don’t think any of the studies actually included the sheer volume of alcohol the average Korean drinks and then vomits up later that would certainly cause stomach cancer, too.

There’s a surprising number of Americans who had no problem drinking the Kool-Aid and forgetting everything they knew about their own culture and their own country, who would argue with you that yes, Koreans are better in every way, even when they’re spitting everywhere and passing out drunk in the street.

I don’t know anything about the language I speak and write in? Okay, master!

I am from a piggy culture that has contributed nothing to the world in the way of sports, science, medicine, or the arts? Okay boss.

Americans can’t handle spicy food, even though peppers are a New World food brought to Korea from the Americas and if we couldn’t handle it, soul food, Tex-Mex, Creole, and Italian-American food wouldn’t even exist? Whatever you say!

Americans have no work/life balance, even though you guys all work 80 hour weeks average and won’t even let us stay home when there’s 50-mph winds? Yessir!

Americans are the most racist people on Earth, when you literally just asked me how many black people have tried to kill me, and you expect a non-zero answer, and just told me that I too genetically flawed as a white person to ever learn to use chopsticks? How high can I jump for you?

This is probably the most mentally exhausting part of teaching in Korea, honestly. It’s not even so much the Koreans, but the other Americans who are too afraid of their Korean overlords to question what they’re being told, or have been mentally beaten down so much that they’ll go along with whatever the master says.

And why is it exhausting? Because the entire point of you being there is to teach English the way an American would speak it, even though you’re actually just teaching what a non-native speaker wrote, but part of learning to “speak American” is learning about America, and if you have to answer your students’ questions about your country in a way that puts your own country down and elevates South Korea unnecessarily, especially because you’re on camera and being recorded, you may snap.

Smile! You actually ARE on camera.

If you teach in a private school, your classrooms will have cameras and microphones, and anyone at any time can come in, see what you’re doing, and give their two cents. I knew a teacher who was forced to change the entire curriculum because a mother watched on video that the kids were reading, and she didn’t like that. She was paying for her kid to learn to speak English, not read it.

Given that you will often be forced to rush a bunch of young children through lessons or else you’re be penalized, having someone secretly watch you at any moment and knowing they not only have the power to watch, but the power to come in and disrupt the class adds so much more stress to what you’re already doing.

If you appear to be taking too long to explain something, you can get in trouble. If you turn your back to write on the board and in that moment, a kid misbehaves, you can get in trouble. If you have an off day and snap, even if you apologize to your class, you can get in trouble. If you’re not smiling enough the moment that someone is watching you, you can get in trouble.

And this is the norm, not the exception.

This also means that your students have ZERO privacy in the classroom as well. They can’t speak to you in confidence. They can’t be vulnerable and make a mistake. Everything is a performance because that’s how the school makes money.

Even in a look-at-me-for-no-reason culture that is America, doing this day in, day out at work with really no control over the curriculum, the agenda, or your students is really just like being caught in a glass bowl. Consider that a lot of these schools do not have offices or even bathrooms for the teachers, there is no moment of privacy, no place to get your head together when you’re stressed out.

Case in point: at my second school, I taught a class in which I showed vintage cartoons during the bathroom break to give the kids a little entertainment. A kid who was very disruptive told his parent I told him to sit down and be quiet. The parent came in to watch me on camera. Yes, she saw her son being disruptive, but decided that it was actually the fact that I showed cartoons during the break and not that her son was a fucking spoiled little brat that was the problem.

So I became the only afternoon teacher at that school not allowed to show cartoons.

And that kid was still out of control anyway.

School #1

The first hagwon I taught at was in Gangnam, LCI, which is now defunct. Back then, it was the flagship school of the oldest hagwon chain in Korea. I lived in a neighborhood in Gangnam called Yeoksam 3 in a building owned by the school in an area called “hooker alley” because it was a place with a lot of sex workers and places where people would bring sex workers to fuck in the car. At one point, the school rented an empty apartment to a sex worker who would throw parties in the middle of the night and have up to twenty men spilling out into the hallways, smoking, drinking, puking, yelling, and knocking on doors.

It was rumored that our apartment building was floating on sewage.

The director was a woman named Jackie who, for all her business savvy, was probably the worst judge of character I have ever known.

It’s not that weird that Koreans can’t intuit what Americans can intuit about each other, but it’s surprising when they assume the exact opposite of what you might assume. For example, I worked with a woman who was really just out of her fucking mind and taking people on emotional roller coasters. It turns out that she was just sober enough from a years-long opiate addiction to pass the drug test, but was still sobering up and still very much an addict. She was seen as “passionate,” and her premature wrinkling a sign of all the responsibility she must have had, not you know, hard living.

This woman had never taught, never tutored. She lied on her resume to get to Korea because she was trying to run from an obsession she had with a man who thought she was disgusting and had been trying to gray-rock her unsuccessfully for about a year before she left for Seoul. She was still pestering him from the other side of the globe.

Jackie loved this little psycho.

There were other teachers who always talked shit about Jackie but were so sickly sweet to her face that another Westerner would be suspicious. Not Jackie. She gave them whatever they wanted. Me? I actually didn’t dislike her despite her emotional walls. I understood. She never liked me. I just couldn’t bring myself to kiss her ass. What could I say? I was just too American for that.

I was never certain of her last name, because to us, her name was Jackie Teacher, but I thought I heard it once, so that’s the last name I used whenever I had to identify her. I have no idea if the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar were ever able to get ahold of her to ask her about my character, or if, for that matter, they ever got a hold of anyone in Korea to ask about my character, because the school was gone by then, and I was still admitted to the bar, even though any complaint they would have had about me wouldn’t really be a setback for a lawyer.

School #2

I have a feeling that by the time the Board of Admissions got a hold of my second school, there was no one left there who remembered who I was. There were something like 44 foreign teachers and ten Korean teachers at the school when I first got there, but it appears that a copyright lawsuit, poor management, promoting the worst of their employees to management positions, the general bizarre behavior of the owner, and the inability to compete in a competitive market without stealing curriculum from other schools and trying to pass it off as your own has brought the school down to a total of three teachers as of today.

It was also one of the worst places I ever worked, perhaps the worst place I have ever worked in my life. I worked in “R&D” where we mostly edited workbooks that were wholly lifted from textbooks by American publishers. I found out sometime in the middle of the year when I noticed how similar our custom content appeared to be to the professional textbooks on our bookshelf, a bookshelf that was strangely off-limits most of the time.

The original manager of the foreign R&D workers went back to the United States and they promoted a person who is probably one of the worst humans on Earth. This guy, “John”, looked like every villain from every kid’s film ever. He was short, skinny, with beady little eyes, a sneer full of little brown baked-bean teeth, pock marks and a voice like Ben Shapiro.

We were supposed to be a publishing unit, but John’s first act as boss was to keep the editorial calendar to himself so no one knew what to do day by day. We were all also teachers, but weren’t allowed any time to prepare for classes or grade work because it interfered with the mysterious schedule.

If we couldn’t find the time, it was our faults, because we were supposed to be professionals, which means having control over time-space by being able to make time stop so we could grade homework.

This guy forbade us from socializing with each other but would force us to stop working to make us listen to stories about him getting drunk and gambling in Korean-only casinos, and if you kept working, he would yell at you. He would call meetings five minutes before our lunch hour and make us sit there until we had missed just about the entire hour. He would then take his lunch because he wasn’t bound to the same work hours as the rest of us.

This happened to all of us except one other employee.

There was a girl in the department who was a supposed to be a teacher but was primarily a book designer or photographer of some sort, someone who did very basic work in Photoshop and Illustrator and took pictures at school events who had a job protection above and beyond what everyone else had because she was having sex with John. And I am still bewildered as to what she was actually hired to do, why they kept renewing her visa and keeping her there on a full salary, because she wasn’t even doing graphic design that took any really skill or talent. It was the kind of basic stuff you do when you have a copy of Photoshop and Illustrator and some time to watch Youtube tutorials. I mean, imagine in 2020 if you had a co-worker who called herself “a designer” and went to work and just applied Instagram filters to photographs all day. That was the level of “design” she was doing. She was considered part of our team, but she didn’t have to do much actual writing or thinking.

Yet, despite that, she had special privileges, like sick days that she took to go to spas to deal with a severe superficial acne problem that she developed while living in Korea because she had a phobia about her pajamas and bedsheets being exposed to air so she repeatedly slept in her own filth and what must have been the world’s largest population of skin mites. And her boyfriend John forbid us from ever suggesting that maybe her phobia is the reason her skin is a mess.

Imagine having sex in that bed. John was no prize by any stretch of the imagination, but if I were him, I would always insist she come to my place.

When she went to her spa days, I mean sick days, everyone had to stop what they were doing and edit any of the writing work she had done because it was so bad that you’d think one of our elementary school students did it.

But we weren’t allowed to tell her that, or to mention that maybe washing her sheets or pajamas or letting them be exposed to fresh air might help with her skin problem. Her parents, who would come visit periodically to come clean up after her, starting sending her Accutane. That was around the time she got really aggressive, her aggression matching John’s aggression, and they were both really mad at me for refusing to show any fear of John.

And John would literally scream at people like a PCP addict to the point where people in other offices in other companies would knock on the door to see if everything was okay. And John hated me because I had the audacity to question him and ask for explanations for his decisions.

Psychopaths apparently don’t like to be questioned. Psychopath’s fuck buddies take perverse pleasure in causing misery to other women.

And it was strange, because on her own, the book designer would desperately look for another leader. If John wasn’t around, she’d even come to me. She was the Karla Homolka to John’s Paul Bernardo, so why would I trust her?

They were terrible people. They made fun of me when they found out that my father had cancer and that’s why I disobeyed John and made a phone call in the middle of the day. They made fun of me because I was stuck in Korea and going to miss my sister’s wedding. They were pretty much two of the worst human beings I have ever met.

I stuck it out because of a series of strange events. First, the IRS wrongly took all of my savings to cover my ex’s taxes and it took months to get it back. Then, I needed to keep making the money so I could go to law school (which I would, eventually).

Then, I found out that all of the supposed original content I was editing was wholly lifted from other books, and that the other teachers, including John’s whore, actually thought that this was on them if they told anyone, and I felt like if I left, I would have nothing to show for my work.

Then, I realized that I was too far into my contract to be fired, so why the fuck should I not make John as miserable as I could? Maybe he’ll get so mad he’ll drink himself to death and the world would be a better place.

Then, the school lost a copyright lawsuit filed by PolySchool and was forced to change its name within a month or pay for use, including seven years of use retroactively, so watching the school scramble to rebrand itself was amusing, going from Kangnampoly to KangnamPride.

Then, I made the acquaintance of the head of a foreign teacher watchdog group and one day at work, casually mentioned that me, the other workers in my department, and especially John’s whore, were all working on the wrong visas, and how that was very interesting to her.

Then I realized that I had easily saved a lot more money than I intended simply because I was so miserable and not going out, so I should wait for a good day in September when the exchange rate was high to send it all to the US.

Then John arbitrarily decided to not allow anyone to have any copies of the “books” we wrote and took all our names off the covers to spite me, personally, so it really didn’t matter if I finished my contract or not, was fired or not. I just made sure to live out of a suitcase for a while.

Then, during the last two months of my employment, John forced the team to stop working on our real work — and of course, no one ever really knew what that was because he hid the editorial calendar from us — to work on a pet project that he was repeatedly told by the owner not to do, and it was then that I realized I really needed to stick out this shit show, because someday I will tell the entire story even if people still don’t believe how fucking insane that place was.

And then I got to hear John get his ego smashed. I was asked to explain to management what transpired, and his little whore was standing right there, texting the entire thing to him like I didn’t know, so I made sure to be as inflammatory as possible because fuck yes, it’s John turn to have a taste of his own medicine.

And then I left for America, and life went on.

This isn’t the entire story, by the way. It’s just part of some of the story.

I don’t know what happened to John. Maybe he’s still in Korea. Maybe he drank himself to death. Maybe he came to Jesus and he’s sober and married with two kids and a dog and teaches Bible study on Sunday. Maybe he’s in prison. Maybe he and the book designer are still together and have crossed the bridge to actual murder. I hope not.

If you ever see anything on LinkedIn or a freelancer website where someone claims to have worked in R&D at Kangampoly or Kangnampride and created curriculum or textbooks, it’s more likely than not whatever they claim to have created is actually plagiarized, stolen from some American publisher, definitely Pearson and MacGraw Hill for sure, and probably some from the other three big publishers. And yes, I understand what libel and defamation are, and I have absolute belief, based on what I know and saw, that I am right. The general population of teachers there didn’t know that, but the people who were supposedly creating the content did know, as did the owner. And they would actually file for copyright on these books, making legal claims that the content was all theirs. Crazy.

But since I wasn’t allowed to have any copies of the books I edited that also don’t have my name on them, then I can’t really say for certain that I had a hand in helping Kangnam Pride plagiarize the fuck out of every English textbook it could get its hands on. No one can actually say that I did, right? I wasn’t even supposed to be working in R&D on an E-2 visa, right? E-2 visas are strictly for classroom teaching of English as a second language, so I wouldn’t have had any hand in any of that, knowingly or unknowingly, right?

I learned through the grapevine that John was eventually promoted to head of human resources, and that’s when things went to weird and gross to downright terrifying. Teachers being interrogated and threatened with police action, people being threatened for talking about the school publicly, even people in other countries. Arbitrary actions against teachers, and a culture of fear ruling everything. No one was allowed to ask questions. No one was allowed to deviate from protocol.

Being under observation all the time in the classroom by someone who is fundamentally sadistic cannot make for a fun time. I heard that even long time teachers were leaving the school, including head teachers, and that they were having trouble keeping new ones.

I heard that John told the owners of a hagwon blacklist website based in America that Interpol (the police force, not the band) was coming for them for publishing my blacklist review of the school.

But after working at a place as toxic as KangnamPride and feeling at first stuck and then in the end, perversely amused and still coming out with no damage to my professional life, I think I can handle a lot of other places.

Or I would just leave sooner.

I do miss things about Korea though.

None of them were related to my jobs, since I hated those, and in general, I hate jobs, so I had to stop having jobs, even if I am employed. I am employed, but I can’t be told what to do and just expected to do it without explanation or a reason. I’ve never been good at taking orders, and it’s hard to work in Korea if you can’t just do what you’re told without question. Some people can do that. Some people are born to be cannon fodder, and that’s fine, because someone has to buy all that dumb shit they sell in that square by the carts at Target.

I miss being able to walk around the area of Gangnam station on a warm night, lost among the crowds, the lights, and the K-Pop streaming out of every doorway, none of it truly distracting enough to pull me out of my own head, always looking for a coffee shop to duck into with my laptop to start writing, just there in a sea of sounds and sights that I would never truly understand, all around me, enveloping me, never entering me or taking me, a sort of wall of vision and sound that both insulated me from Korea and yet kept me squarely planted there.

I miss buying Korean cosmetics with my friends. Damn, I actually just miss my Korean cosmetics. I had tons of unopened products that I gave to my sisters when I moved here. Ingrates. Anyway.

I miss sitting outside a 7/11 with the other teachers, chain smoking and drinking soju, getting stares from locals, trying to figure out what the clerk behind the counter was trying to say to us, not caring about what I was going to feel like tomorrow morning because it really didn’t matter how I felt or what I did at work since it was more of the same.

— I don’t smoke anymore, but sometimes I wish I did, and sometimes I wish I could smoke without any consequences at all, bumming smokes all night before relenting and buying my own and then finding myself back up to a pack a day so it’s just been cold turkey since Chicago with a few drunk and high nights with smoker friends (but those don’t count, right?).

I miss sitting on a rooftop bar in Itaewon, looking out at the mix of new and old rooftops bobbing up and down over the rolling hills of Seoul, thinking to myself “Oh yes, so this is dating again. What have I been afraid of all this time? It’s just as boring as I remember it to be.”

I miss going to Doosan Bears games and being surprised that I actually understood enough baseball to follow along.

I miss the restless nights that I sat on my settee or my bed, typing away, typing as if my life depended on it, in yet one more furious marathon of writing that I thought was somehow going to cure everything, be my salvation, lift me up from life somehow and drop me gently into my dreams.

I miss being able to walk up a mountain in the middle of the city, standing on the top, and looking out on the city, and on the layers of the day sky: the smoke, the clouds, the yellow dust, the rest of eternity far overhead, thinking to myself “yes, this is enough. And this is good.”

I miss going hiking in the country on all-day hikes, not sure if I’m going to live through it or not.

I miss walking into a Buddhist temple and sitting there and wondering what I should be thinking or feeling and if that’s how all Buddhists feel.

On that note, I miss my initial shock of moving further into more traditional Korean neighborhoods and seeing swastikas everywhere and thinking that I somehow traveled to another dimension in which the Nazis won and I, the cosmic traveler sent to Earth, am all that stands between the imminent and immediate destruction of all humanity and their one shot at salvation, and I’m still on the fence about what to do, because like I said, I’ve never really been good at just taking orders.

[In reality, those swastikas were actually signs for Buddhist temples, but I never quite got used to seeing them everywhere. Or the Neon Crosses on the churches.]

I miss torrential downpours in the middle of July days so hot that the rain would steam and come down so hard that any umbrellas was useless, a lukewarm Seoul-sized shower in which all of the Koreans around me would stare like I was nuts or try to cover me with their own umbrellas because they literally believed in acid rain.

I miss proper kimchi fried rice with gim and a fried egg on top.

I miss getting grilled dried squid with peanut butter on it.

Don’t knock it until you try it.

I miss Korean grapes, white asian peaches, and Jeju oranges.

I miss walking through the endless mazes of storefronts in every underground in every major subway station.

I miss trying, and failing, to translate meters to feet.

I miss not knowing what was on television, or what was popular in music back home, and feeling fine with that.

I miss going to Dongdaemun Market all day long, particular when I had lost enough weight to fit into Korean-sized clothes (the pants were still always too short though).

I miss walking around Itaewon and getting my hair cut at the one shop all the expats went to because they actually knew how to cut blonde-type hair.

I miss WhattheBook and finding strange gems on the shelves. I remember I was there once with another teacher when a guy, an officer whose entire personality was based on the fact that he went to Tulane, who was way too adamant to meet me THAT DAY, and I was scared that he was coming to Itaewon to specifically to meet me even though I said no, so I actually did hide behind a bookcase for a bit, because bookstores are good for hiding.

I miss getting lost in Namdaemun Market, or Lotte, or Insa-Dong and having Koreans do their best to try to help me.

I miss going to the writer’s workshop with other ex-pats who were making a lifestyle of this Korea thing.

I miss having dinner with Hyeri. I miss sitting outside a GS 25 with Jay who assured me that it was the school I worked at, and not me, who was insane.

I miss walking around Olympic Park.

I miss picking pickles and corn off my pizza.

I miss cruising around on my bike at night.

I miss watching the snow fall in the light of streetlamps and hang heavy on all of the hundreds of various cables sagging from the telephone poles, threatening to topple them. It is if not the most, than one of the most, digitally connected places on earth and has the wires to prove it.

I miss shopping on Christmas Day and taking in Korea’s endearing but slightly peculiar take on Santa Claus.

I miss trying to find the best mul naengmyeon in the city (I don’t know if I found it, but I did find a favorite pretty close to my apartment).

I miss going to a liquor store and smirking when you see that a fifth of No. 7 Jack Daniels somehow costs just as much as a fifth of a single-malt eighteen year old Scotch whisky.

I miss the feeling that when I was done there, my life back in America was a wide open road, and that it would always be that way, so long as I paid my dues in Korea.

I miss a lot of the people I used to talk to, people I used to keep up with on Facebook, but are now scattered to the winds.

I miss all of my students, actually. They were my family, especially during my first year, and now they’re all teenagers and too big for me to pick up.

I miss when these little wisps of humans would put stickers on me when they thought I didn’t know. I miss when they would say “teacher, I be your purse!” then clasp their hands together and hang from my forearms, not realizing that it wasn’t that I had strong arms, but strong thighs and a low center of gravity that made this possible. Also, that they weighed relatively nothing.

I miss when they would make fun of me for not knowing all the Pokemon.

I miss when I would give up and concur that what we had to do was stupid, and we all sort of shared sigh of relief, knowing that even the teacher couldn’t sit still on a mat for a whole fucking hour to go in a circle and talk about what makes us happy.

I miss making deals with my older students to explain what isn’t in their U.S. social studies textbooks if they got their work done faster, and that shit would blow their minds.

I miss looking at the cute gym teacher we had for the last year of my first job who took the English name “Chester” for whatever fucking reason.

Actually, I don’t even remember what he looks like, but tall trim men were not a common site back then.

I miss those moments that I forgot who I was or who I thought I was supposed to be and I was just interacting with all these little humans calling me Miriam Teacher, forgetting about all the cameras and microphones in the classroom, feeling as if I were alive.

***

I don’t think about it that much, to be honest. I don’t even know if I ever miss people the way other people miss people — I mean, if you’re still alive, there’s a chance you and I will wander the same way again, right, so it’s okay, right? Keep on keepin’ on. You don’t owe me anything.

***

I’ve been working from home for six months now. I haven’t seen my calendar (team) since March. I haven’t seen either of the calendars under our leadership since March. I haven’t been in my courtroom since March. I haven’t shared a laugh with my courtroom buddy or the state or the PD in person since March. I haven’t stuck my foot in my mouth in front of the judge in my courtroom in real life since March.

And I have to admit that these past six months have actually been hard on me. I was left alone early on. I had to deal with that in virtual isolation. I had to contend with what turned out to be the reality of that relationship with no resolution. I changed homes completely. There’s a handful of things from the original place — a television, a couple pieces of small furniture I painted white, the glasses, a soap dish, the oven mitts, the vacuum cleaner — but the rest, if it wasn’t mine when I brought it to Chicago, is different, and once again I feel as if I am in a tiny nook in a foreign land, living in a brand new home, isolated and in front of a wide open road, typing away again as if that will be my salvation.

And what else do I have? I can’t get a dog. I have no one to visit, not yet anyway: there is someone I am supposed to visit, but now I’m afraid. I’m out of practice, I’m unsure what to do, my mind drifting to the rooftops of the old houses and the new houses in Itaewon, trying to remember how to have small talk and failing at it.

When I was in Korea, I met a color scientist-turned-artist, and I told him about this event in my life:

I remember when I was first able to see the secondary colors. I was three years old, and I was at Nolan Shoes, standing in front of the giant Buster Brown head that would blow up the balloon that I would get with my new shoes.

For those who are not Americans in their forties, Buster Brown was a fey little winking child in a straw hat who had a dog who was actually some sort of demonic pitpull with no eyelids that smiled with an endless row of razor sharp shark teeth. He was the mascot for a line of children’s shoes, and at some stores, there would be a gigantic tank of this weird kid’s head that would be used to blow up Buster Brown balloons.

It was absolutely fucking terrifying.

But if you wanted a balloon, you had to confront your fears and allow that giant freaky Philip-Emo-had-a-baby-with-Bette-Davis thing that wasn’t even so much winking as it was just casually flaunting that it was missing an eye to put its mouth on your balloon and make it float for you.

And I wanted that balloon, because that was my reward for enduring the ordeal of getting new shoes. They came in many colors, I think. I actually didn’t really know back then that there were more than a few colors: black, white, brown, red, yellow, and blue.

Of course, I’m sure I could see all the colors with my eyes, but I couldn’t give them names. I didn’t know that they had names or that they were somehow different from their primary counterparts. I don’t remember pink being different from red, or orange being different from yellow, or purple being different from blue. I don’t remember them being distinct or even knowing that they could be distinct. I just know that I liked some reds and some blues better than others.

I always got the yellow balloon, because out of all the colors I could name, yellow was the prettiest one. I was perhaps almost three years old then. The other three children were probably not born, or #4 was likely still just a small baby. This is what I remember. I remember that my older brother (sister) got a red balloon, and I remember that my younger brother, got a blue balloon, and this was the order of things when we got our Buster Brown balloons at new shoe time because anything else would be chaos!

And then I was asked if I would like a different color. I knew what it was by sight: I remember that I understood that I had seen this color before, but not that I knew that this color was somehow not blue, was definitely nicer than blue, but was still blue. I did not know, however, that it had a name.

The woman blowing up the balloons told me that it was purple, a purple balloon to match my new purple sneakers, sneakers I thought were just a pretty type of blue.

And it was beautiful. Magnificent. I remember watching this tiny little black bag in Buster Balloon’s mouth inflate and turn a lovely shade of a color that was apparently called purple, just like magic. It was then that I realized that maybe all of the colors all have their own names and that the categories might be much bigger than I realized.

And then there was colors like orange, and green, and gray, and light colors like pink and lavender, and dark colors like navy, and then colors that were mixes of colors, like yellow-green, or blue-purple also known as violet, and red-orange like the color of leaves in the fall. Suddenly, the sky wasn’t white/blue: it was sky blue, and that was a color, too.

I don’t think this all just hit me at once in the middle of the shoe store, blowing my mind in ways nothing else ever would, but it feels like that, like suddenly I could see the world in so many more dimensions than the few categories I knew.

So this guy didn’t even have to keep talking to me after I told him this story, but to be fair, we were talking about the science of color. This may have been a misguided effort to show interest in his work and let him know how important I thought it was, but he listened anyway, and I felt better about being the expert archivist of insignificant things I seem to be destined to be.

Maybe he was genuinely interested. Maybe he just wanted to get laid.

This is what I miss: I miss stillness giving way to discovery, because so far, it’s been six months of stillness and I am desperately chasing discovery still, thinking I may have found it, but not quite sure.

Are there any more colors to discover? Are there any more men with whom I could tell me strange little stories of coming into being?

***

Seoul, despite it’s size, was somehow quiet at night if you knew where to look. A random alley cat or couple of drunks could break the silence a bit but other than that, voices and cars and sound systems didn’t always carry. It wasn’t that much different from other big cities, like Chicago.

And sometimes, if I could, I would sit in my window and look into the windows of other little apartments, say, at the man who polished his shoes and did burpees every night, at the couple who sat and smoked and talked for hours before bed, at the woman who was always changing her clothes, and her mother who was getting ready to take a shower of getting out of the shower, and beyond those houses and apartments, in the places I couldn’t see but had to be there full of people who were all living stories of their own, wondering what they were searching for too, if they were like me, too wistful to be a lot of fun, and if someone offered them a job teaching Korean as a second language in New York City, if they would take it.

If I could, I would take it.

Why not?

2 thoughts on “Two Years in Korea: Eight Years Later

  1. Pingback: Eros and Psyche in Composite | Fugitive Umbrellas

  2. Pingback: The Fall Equinox | Fugitive Umbrellas

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