The tiger and the bear

Monday, 1 December 2003

I had two important experiences with the headmaster, Mr. K. They made great bookends to my time in Korea. In my first week of employment at the Kuk Je International Language Institute, he nearly took my life. About a year later, in my last months of employment, I hurt him to tears.

My Si-sa Korean-English dictionary says Ki-bun (기분) means: feeling, sentiment, state/frame of mind. But I understood it to mean more; because feeling all right is more important to Koreans than Occidentals. So important that lying or manipulation or acquiescence is obligatory in support of everyone feeling right for as long as possible.

This can and did lead to a great deal of stress as the North American teachers wanted things up front while the managers, all Korean, wanted everyone to feel good even when something bad was coming a month or two down the road. No point in sharing it till the last minute. It would just make things harder than they had to be, after all.

My second or third day at the office my new boss, Mr. K, asked me to take care of some electrical wiring. There is nothing on my résumé to indicate I had that kind of skill but I happen to so I said, “Sure thing.”

I was wiring an outlet in one office to a plain old extension cord that ran through the wall from the next room (hey, it’s what he wanted). Customs didn’t catch my skinning knife (at 3.5" it’s probably legal in most countries) so I had no trouble scoring the wire to strip. I made sure the extension cord was unplugged in the other room and came back to strip the cord. As any electrician who’s lived a charmed life will tell you, there is simply nothing better for stripping wire than your teeth.

So I put the 16ga plastic coated copper in my mouth, bit down and pulled.

Mr. K had decided to help; to make sure things went smoothly. He had plugged the cord back in as soon as I left the room. So I stripped a live wire with my teeth. Fortunately, I’m only partially stupid—I had my lips pulled back and caught the volts in my thumb instead of my mouth.

His 45 minute welcome-lecture “Never Have Sexual-Intercourse with the Students” aside I knew Mr. K was a kind, well-meaning man. It was my first days in a year long contract in a foreign country. I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even act that mad. I know how to leave a room and count to ten so it never needed to come up again.

A year later—I’d been an expatriate for even longer—and things were getting a little flakey. I was drinking the export version of Early Times and playing “Doom II” non-stop all night for a few weekends to cope and unwind. No lie, I can beat that damn thing in one sitting, without dying, on any difficulty level short of the laughable “Nightmare.”

There was a nice young Kanajian teacher named Jason Blokhuis. I mention his full name so he’ll be good enough to drop me a line sometime. He’d started a school news-rag called the “Kuk Je Chronicle,” I think it was. It was done well but it made me a bit jealous as I’d just left a small publishing business behind. Instead of doing fun stuff like that, I was teaching 50 hours a week and doing lesson plans another 10. You can see how that was just one more thing that was weighing on me. Not because of anything Jason did, he was generally a prince and a damn fine breakfast chef besides.

So one weekend my roomie Ken was hanging around playing Doom with me in the office. We were drunk again. I mocked-up a phony broadsheet of the school paper with articles to get square with everything that was bothering me. Entirely satirical. Really pretty funny. Ken helped me with a couple pieces because it looked good.

We were done with the first issue of the “Kuk-Je Byung-Shin Hag-Won News.” Kuk-Je means international. Hag-Won means school or institute. Byung-shin means a few things, among them: retard. We laughed our asses off. The International Retard Institute. We felt better. I enjoyed the therapy and I was ready to be a little more sober, a little happier, and get back to living more and escaping less.

Ken took his copy, I took mine and we were never planning on showing them to anyone. Especially not any Koreans, friends or otherwise, because they just wouldn’t think it was funny at any level of intoxication.

As you know, God and I don’t get along. What happened was inevitable. Probably I left it on the printer but I prefer to blame Bill Gates for a latent print queue file making it out of the buffer after we were gone. However it happened, a copy of the satirical paper was left on the printer and given to Mr. K in the morning.

The punchline is better than you’re guessing. It wasn’t just cultural crossed wires, as it were. Mr. K’s son is autistic, I think. I’m not even sure because I’d been told about it a year before and never thought about it again. Byung-shin can translate as cripple or defective or, I suppose, autistic.

Mr. K was sure that the joke was made about him and his son.

I was hard hit because I knew how much he was hurt and there was nothing I could do about it. The culture bridge is just too narrow and weak to support the traffic it took to explain it. There is no way he could understand that Americans, especially stressed-out, intoxicated ones, absolutely will make jokes in poor taste; maybe even without meaning any harm. No way he would believe the joke wasn’t about him and was never meant for him to see. Watching him mist up with tears while refusing to hear my apology or believe my explanation almost made me cry. Watching him fumble with his own English to try to explain to me how awful this was…My God, I must have hurt him.

So I think you can see the moral of the story.

Get even early and utterly. Get even immediately following a slight and without mercy to ensure there’s no confusion as to who deserved what. If it’s a year later, you’ll be the badguy.

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