The New Teacher

Mr. Kim brought Allen by the hogwon at 5 p.m. on Saturday night. Jasper was the only one there. No one much liked Jasper but Mr. Kim. He loved Jasper because Jasper made him more money than any other teacher. The personal friction attributed to Jasper was always with other foreign teachers. Mr. Kim marked it up to western culture which he was quite happy to admit was beyond him. So he left Allen in Jasper’s care without reservation.

Mr. Kim said, “Please take care of our new teacher, all right. Please explain to him, you know, how we do things here. Tell him all about Korea, okay? I know you are an expert now.” He laughed amiably at the last one. “I will be back soon, all right? I just have to arrange, uh, a place for him to stay with Manpred tonight, all right?”

“No problem,” said Jasper.

Mr. Kim disappeared.

“Hi. I’m Allen.”

“Jasper.”

“Um, who’s Manpred?”

“Manfred. Koreans don’t have an ‘F.’ You’ll get used to it. It makes Korean easier, fewer sounds. He’ll be your roomie, at least for now.”

“Okay.”

“Know any Korean?”

“Not even the characters.”

“It’s a snap. It’s not like Chinese. It’s not characters. It’s an alphabet. Probably the best in the world. Definitely the most modern. Fewer letters than English and the spelling is phonetic usually.”

“What does ‘hogwon’ mean?”

“Ah, uh, study place. School. Here,” Jasper pulled a sheet of paper from the desk and a marker and drew the two syllables of the word.

Allen said, “Zero with a hat beside an ‘l’ shot with an arrow. Both on top of a squat ‘7.’ The second one looks like the Greek symbol for female next to another ‘l’ stuck with an arrow on the left side this time. They seem to be resting in what looks to me exactly like a Nike swash.”

“Damn if they don’t,” said Jasper, somewhat impressed with the abstraction. He asked, “Where you from?”

“I’ve been bouncing around the South but my people are in New Mexico.”

“Your people?” asked Jasper. Allen nodded without taking offense. “You guys really talk that way?”

“Yeah, seems like it, doesn’t it?”

“What’s your degree?”

“English.”

“Great. We need one of those.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the only one.”

“I thought everyone had English degrees or teaching or something.”

“Nope. Any four year will do around here. This ain’t Japan.”

“What about you?”

“Shhh, don’t tell. I don’t have one.”

“How on Earth did you get the job?”

“Did I say I didn’t have one? I meant to say, Philosophy. I get that mixed up with not having a degree.”

Allen looked around the office. Put his bag down on the teachers’ table. Jasper was sizing him up; looking for cracks.

Allen looked Jasper in the eyes and said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Who’s your favorite Stooge?”

Jasper laughed at the ambush, “Okay, wow, you got me. Gotta go with Moe.”

“You seemed the Curly type.”

“Maybe in a younger era but those days are gone.”

“Well, we’ll hold out for you.”

“I’m gonna tell you something that I haven’t said to anyone in the two years I’ve been here.”

“I’m braced.”

“You’re okay, Allen.”

“That didn’t hurt a bit.”

“Ah, sit down,” Jasper said and did. “Are you tired?”

Allen sat across the table from him. “No. Wired. I slept the whole flight and had about four watery coffees at the airport waiting for Mr., uh, Kim.”

“If you like coffee or beer, or anything besides rice for that matter, you’ve come to the wrong country. Though Korea does have, hands down, the best rice in the world.”

“I’ll manage.”

“Sure.”

“Say,” said Allen standing up, “I could really use a bathroom. Airplane food and all.”

“It’s in the stairwell,” Jasper said.

Allen grabbed the roll of TP from the desk.

Jasper said, “Oh, that’s office paper man. The bathroom’s stocked.”

“TP for the office?” asked Allen.

“Korean habit. They don’t use much Kleenex. The President probably has a roll of toilet paper on his desk in the Blue House.”

“Blue House?”

“One thing at a time, man.”

Jasper stopped Allen halfway out the door with: “Hey, have you ever been outta the States?”

“No. …Why?”

“No reason.”

When Allen came back he said, “Call me avant garde but are all the toilets in Korea like that?”

“’Bout sixty-forty, I reckon. Squat to sit down.”

“Swell.”

“Ah, it’s easier than chopsticks. Well, do you want the tour or the lecture, or both?”

“Maybe you can explain the housing stuff to me.”

“Oh, we’re all saddled with a roommate. Hey, let’s make some coffee and sit down for this. If you’re not tired I could go on for a couple of hours.”

“Sure.”

Jasper talked him through the office. Showed him where the coffee and teas were, the school books, the supplies, the copier, the tapes. He ran down the basics of payday and how they would screw him on his schedule because the new teacher always had to take the worst classes until he knew the difference. Jasper cautioned him in no uncertain terms about teaching in the public schools.

“You’ll get fifty eight-year-olds bouncing on their desks like monkeys, trying to poke you in the rectum whenever you turn around. The little bastards have the aim of third year anatomy student. Fight it, man. Just don’t go. Don’t let Mrs. Bae send you out there or you’ll learn why child abuse is acceptable here.”

“Why did you come to Korea?” asked Allen.

“Well, the only response I have for that is: What’s your damage?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re gonna find something out fast here. All the expatriates are losers. For one reason or another. And that’s why they’re here.”

“You include yourself?”

“I’m not the type to make a statement and qualify it with present company excepted.

“Explain.”

“Korea is the easiest place in the world to get a job and it pays much too well. All the westerners are here because of some flaw that prevented them from gainful employment at home. It’s usually some kind of psychological problem. Some of the Canadians have CC degrees which aren’t good enough to get them a job in a glutted socialist economy. We have the occasional wife shopper too who has a personality defect which American women can smell in an instant but Asian women are oblivious to.”

“What’s your damage?”

“Oh, but I asked first.”

“None springs to mind.”

Jasper laughed but managed to keep it friendly. He said, “Well, then you’ll fit right in. Why did you come to Korea? If I may.”

“To meet my girlfriend.”

“Oh, boy. The first part addresses the second. I didn’t mean to implicate you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Where’s your girlfriend?”

“Right here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Diane Gabaque.”

“Get out.”

“Sure. Didn’t she tell you.”

“Diane hates me, man. She wouldn’t tell me.”

“Why?”

“That’s my superficial damage. Nobody can like me. I’ll give you a break until you’ve been here but you’ll understand. You’ll probably hear all about from her.”

“I hope it’s not like that.”

“Are you a tough guy?” asked Jasper, changing tack, “You look like you work out a bit.”

“I do but I don’t know what you mean.”

“Do you get into fights? Are you physically confrontational? Do you find your fists answer more insults than your mouth?”

“No. I’ve never been in a fight. Not since grade school.”

“That’s good ’cause we’ve got too many tough guys and know-it-alls right now and I think there’s trouble a brewing.”

Jasper moved over to point at a picture on the wall. It was of the entire staff, Korean and western. He pointed teachers out as he described them: “We’ve got Eric, a cretin weekend warrior. Note the macroencephally. Thinks he’s getting merit badges for this, but he don’t need no stinking badges, ’cause he’s self-deputized to take care of everybody in Suwon city.

“Johnie, an Aussie, kind of an idiot but at least he’s quiet. He’s got something right under the surface that says, ‘Go ahead,’ if you know what I mean. You know how colonial reprobates are. Born criminals. I think he’s tapping her,” Jasper pointed to a gorgeous Korean woman in the picture. “She teaches Japanese.

“There’s Angelo,” he said grinding a finger tip into the glass over the face in the picture, “He’s a gem, a real closet psycho. He thinks he’s better than everyone. Works every spare hour he’s got. I can smell a nervous break down on him. He makes more money than everyone, I think even me. ’Cause he teaches a bunch of privates—which is totally illegal and might get you fired but I must recommend it because it will change your income from 20-whatever K to 50-something, seriously—but this guy’s so tight you couldn’t get a quarter out of him. Nobody knows why he’s killing himself with the teaching. If he opens up to you let me know. It’s about the only thing I’m curious about around here, except the condition of Miss Maeng’s produce but I think I can find that out without your help.

“And there’s me. That was a bad haircut. I’m a problem case. Be interesting to see if any of it actually comes to blows. I do my best but it hasn’t happened yet.”

“What would happen if it did?” Allen asked.

“Koreans would stay out of it unless it went to homicide. This is the time and the place, my friend, to commit foolish acts of retribution and violence. Koreans are scared of us, really. Or scared of getting involved in our business. We’re zoo animals to them. Fascinating, exciting, friendly, funny. They want to pet us and play with us and take pictures in front of us and watch us do tricks but no way would they step in the cage at feeding time.”

“Wow.”

“Speaking of feed, you hungry, man?”

“Yeah, actually, famished. Say, this is cool but can I call Diane?”

“Your life, bro’. The phone’s on Miss Maeng’s desk and the teachers’ numbers are all on it in English.”

Allen went and called. He got no answer. He came back to Jasper and said, “Well, what’s to eat?”

“Can you take spicy?”

“Like curry?”

“No, they don’t do that here. It’s red chile, go-choo.”

“Yeah, why not? What about Mr. Kim?”

“I’ll leave a note. He’ll come find us. If he does, he’ll pick up the check. Eat with Koreans whenever possible. You’ll never have to pay for anything.”

They locked up and went downstairs. The evening Spring air was warm and still and smelled fine. The city was in one of its neutral moments that made it attractive. Neon and light table signs in triplets hung off the triple decker rows of buildings on the main thoroughfare. Shop windows offered stationery, cosmetics, suits, food, coffee and liquor, in Korean, Italian, English, French, and German. There were roaming bands of young women and young men—out for the evening’s coffee and secret cigarette—remaining segregated as confucian rule demanded after age seven.

Jasper led Allen down the road. They got some surprised stares when they came upon a group but it was a slow night for foreigner watching. Jasper warned him about the staring though it didn’t bother him personally. Many of the teachers couldn’t take it.

They passed a photoshop. Jasper said, “We all get our pictures done there. But let me warn you. They don’t print the landscapes unless you make a fuss about it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see a million Koreans’ tourist pictures here. It’s always them in front of Epcot, or them in front of the Statue of Liberty, or them in front of the Sydney Opera. They don’t believe in the pastoral. A landscape to them is a mistaken shot. It’s the damn weird mixture of species eradicating humanism and soul crushing communalism I like to call eastern philosophy.”

“I’m not a student of eastern philosophy.”

“You will be. Like it or not. I’ll warn you about the other teachers, excepting Diane.”

“Yeah, what’s her damage?”

“Allen, I’d like to keep as many friendly folks here as I can. You must love this girl. Nothing I could say would be of any interest to you.”

“Why does she hate you, then?”

“Gotta ask her, but you probably will too.”

“I don’t so far.”

“You will. Honesty is a bitch in closed quarters.”

“I like honesty, at any cost. I think its value increases in a situation like this.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, this place we’re going…” Jasper told him of the different kinds of food and the somewhat limited Korean cuisine he could look forward to getting bored with in the next year. They came around the building they were looking for.

They sat down in a four table joint in the basement of bank. Jasper ordered bee-bim-bop for them.

“This is a good first dish,” he said, “All the Koreans assume that every American loves bool-go-gi above all else so you’re gonna get a hundred chances to get sick of it. And you eat this with a spoon. It’s easy.”

“What’s the hardest part about teaching?”

“The only really hard thing will be the six month mark. It’s where most of the teachers freak out. A few leave the country at that point. But if you are the honest type you’ll make it.”

“I was more worried about teaching.”

“Ah, it’s not so hard. Just ask Angelo. Or Wally. They’re the ones who do the most filler stuff that other teacher’s can pick up. The only difficult thing is keeping the schedule the schedule.”

“How so?”

“You’ll be assigned a thirty hour week like it says in your contract but if you aren’t super careful and hard-assed about saying no then you will find yourself working forty-five hours in no time. They’ll ask you to do everything from fixing the wiring to going to Seoul to buy books but you will not be paid for this so as a pal I’m telling you, just say no. But lie about the reason. It’s the Korean way: kibun. Never hurt feelings.”

Allen stopped Jasper’s chopsticks dissertation to go call Diane again. Jasper received their food in two tremendous baby blue plastic bowls. Rice with Asian salad vegetables and an egg. He mixed it and started eating. Allen came back unsuccessful.

“What does a busy signal sound like here?” he asked.

“You’ll know the difference. The rings are spaced pretty far apart.”

“Well, guess she’s not there. Where do you think she is? Is there someplace else to call?”

“Maybe not. Most of the teachers split for the weekend. I’m the only one who never leaves town.”

“How many teachers are there?”

“Right now, ten foreign teachers. Two chicks and eight guys counting you and me. Not counting the Korean teachers. It’s a school record for white-trash power.”

“I see the PC surge never broke on your shores.”

“What? Does my vocabulary bother you? I could do it more.”

“Nah, I don’t care. It’s just a little low brow. Neanderthal. Robs from your credibility, you know.”

“Ah, vocabulary is no crucible, Allen-san. The only test of credibility is time and good record keeping. Just remember what I tell you tonight and when you hit your bad old six month blues you can judge my credibility without the filter of your campus’s hate speech list.”

“Fair enough. What are the Korean teachers like?”

“Beautiful, friendly, naïve, dumb as sticks. They’re all unmarried women. An unmarried Korean of twenty-five is the emotional equivalent of a fifteen-year-old American girl but with much less sexual experience.”

“That’s okay. I’m not in the market.”

“That’s probably for the best, though I think our secretary and a couple of the Korean teachers are. You’ll love Miss Maeng, oh, she’s a hotty. But hands off, she’s mine.”

“How about the rest of the western teachers?”

“Well, I covered the psychos and the bad-asses. There are a couple on the other end of the scale. We’ve got Man-Friday, the cook.”

“He Polynesian?”

“No, he’s Kanajian. Manfred. He’s haute kultur. Don’t tangle with him about any fashion or social issues. He’s a natural born concierge; and a closet communist, like most of them.”

“Canada’s socialist.”

“Hey, I call ’em like I see ’em. We’ve also got Wally. He’s my cross. We’re roomies but he’s scared to even look at me now so it’s working okay. He prefers Wallace so I make a point of Wally. Grade A social retard. Came here to screen mail order brides in person but he picked the wrong country. Getting a virgin outta Korea and away from her family is like prying a gun outta a redneck’s dead fingers. Wally can’t trick a woman into marriage in the west, so, presto-changeo! Asia, here I come. He’s the only one who’s been here longer than me. Excuse me, than I. You will get plenty of grammar advice around here. In two and a half years Wally hasn’t been able to find a bride so he keeps upping up again. He calls this résumé building.

Allen laughed in spite of himself.

“Want another beer, man?”

“I don’t know…”

“Hey, I’m paying. That’s the Korean way. Never suggest Dutch pay. Don’t do it.”

“Do you guys drink all the time?”

“Dexter and Angelo do. Oh, yeah, there’s Dex, good old Dex. Probably the nicest guy here and also the stupidest. IQ aproximates waist size and he’s skinny, man. But that’s why I like him. I always thought kindness was an inverse relationship to genius. Don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely not,” he said and paused, “But I know what you’re saying.”

“So, about that beer?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is the first time I’ve been nice to someone at the school. Of course, I don’t know you, so it’s easy. Come on, man.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Jasper ordered two more tall OB lagers.

“This beer is terrible.”

“Grows on you. And if you think this is bad wait till you try Hite or one of the international family of Czech beers brewed exclusively for export to third world countries.”

Allen leaned back with his beer taking in the place, looking at the others eating there.

Jasper said, “On the female equation there is one nice teacher who’s Korean. I even leave her alone. Her name’s Yoon-mee. It’s bad etiquette to call people by their first name but she’s pretty Americanized so she doesn’t mind.”

“What about Diane’s roommate?”

“Christi. Look out. If you say a cross word to her, tears, man, no lie. But she seems to have a gift for forgetting or forgiving, I don’t know which. But if you don’t have anything nice to say, take it out on me, not her. She has enough of the universe trying to get her.

“Mrs. Bae is the super. Careful. She’s got appetites, if you follow me. She cornered me once and gave me this lecture from six inches away about how Korean women all really want to have sex with Americans. Gave me a throbbing woody but I’m a confirmed bachelor, you realize. And I don’t dig in another man’s dirt.

“Which leads to Ralph. You missed him, thank God, but his name’ll come up. Jesus, he was fucking everything with a pulse and a weak date rape response. He was the one voted most liked to be punched in the nose. But he jumped ship. Did a midnight run. We had a hell of a time covering his classes. If you pull that shit, I will personally track you down in America and slash your tires.”

“You know, I wasn’t gonna ask but Mr. Kim gave me a really weird talk driving from Seoul.”

“You got the ‘sexual intercourse’ lecture?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s Ralph’s fault all right. All the male teachers are getting it. I got it but I think he expurgated for me since I never ruffle Korean feathers. That’s why Ralph split, they were talking about shit-canning him and he had a couple of girls in fits and tears and banging on his door at six a.m. to see if he was sleeping alone which he wasn’t and the whole town was talking.”

“Ugly business.”

“Pfff…” exclaimed Jasper with a shrug.

They had a couple more huge beers together and talked about Korean culture dos and don’ts, Korean seasons, Korean wrestling, Korean holidays, the Korean language. They were having a great time.

They switched bars. A sign that it was an enjoyable evening. In the new place they talked about Allen, avoiding his reason for being there.

“What makes you such a person expert?” asked Allen in the middle of their fourth beers.

“Open eyes is the thing. It’s too painful for most folks but I like it. People are obvious.”

“What about me?”

“Don’t know you yet.”

“That’s a cop out. You said you were so honest. Tell me something now so I believe you. Otherwise I’m gonna think you’re doing it behind my back.”

“Though I do it, as you colloquialize, behind backs, I also do it to faces.”

“Then let’s hear my assessment.”

“You sure? We were getting along so well.”

“I’m sure.”

“No, man, we were having a good time, weren’t we?”

“Yeah, we still are. I’m not going to freak out on you. I just want to know. I like you, man, and I’m cool with it.”

“Why you gotta do that for?”

“Just tell me.”

“The thing that bothers me about you is Diane,” Jasper said but didn’t follow.

“Explain.”

“Nah…”

“You started.”

“Guess I mighnt as well. Diane is…” he paused.

“Just say it. It’s cool. Don’t protect me.”

“Diane’s a bitch, man. She’s callow, shallow, full of tallow and makes me seem refined. I understand she’s beautiful and there are some serious pheromones coming off of her but anyone who could love her has a basic flaw and diminishes in my estimation. I was enjoying talking with you and I have nothing bad to to say about you personally but a good guy wouldn’t tangle in there.”

It took Allen a moment to speak. He turned the beer bottle around in front of him a couple of times. He didn’t look up. “Well, I guess I’ve had enough tonight.” The anger sublimated in his voice was like an old family fight.

“I warned you about my damage.”

“Yeah. Can you just call Mr. Kim for me so I can get to my new place?”

“Uh, man. No,” Jasper said digging into his jacket pocket for a school card. He put the card down on the table with 300 won for a couple of gos on the pay phone. “His number’s there, though he knows you’re here. So Manfred’s, your roomie. Everybody knows this place. If you wait, Kim’ll be here to get you within an hour, I expect. They don’t tip in Korea so don’t.”

Jasper stood up and put on his jacket. He took the ticket and paid it without looking back. Allen sat wondering where Diane was, wondering what in the hell he was doing in Korea.


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