Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Ruckus in the Night

It’s two thirty in the morning and I’m listening to man cry in the hallway. He shakes the door and it sound like loose bolts rattling as someone stomps over plywood. It’s the only noise in the building. The building stays perfectly still as if the structure—the marble floors, the glass panels exposing the five landings, and the metal skeleton holding everything together—was worried about being attacked.
            “Ani mando kahm morando,” he screams. His voice breaks into a castrato tenor, the howl of animal caught in a bear trap. I went to bed early tonight. My new boss likes to note everything I do wrong while I teach. Most teachers are observed once or twice every few months. Carol sits in the back of every one of my classes. She sits in a chair with her space heater humming next to her while she flips through her notebook making tiny critiques in broken English.
            “You spent two minutes explaining the homework, today,” she told me on Monday. “You should only spend one minute.”
            “Okay,” I said. We are the new teacher and supervisor of the new small groups department. We sit in a glass conference room in the library previously used to videotape the students giving speeches in front of a blue screen showing the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon. There are only eight kids, and two classes. We have no set classroom, and we often have to stand quietly in the hallway waiting for one classroom or another to be abandoned. We move around the building like traveling salesman with a product no one wants to buy.
            Carol lived in Los Angeles for one year where she earned a TESOL certificate, the same certificate I earned in a month and a half. Stumbling through her sentences dropping prepositions and clunking words together like a Russian villain in a James Bond movie, she told me the question, “How do you think Harry felt after the baseball game?” was grammatically incorrect. This was how we began Tuesday morning before class.
            “No, it isn’t,” I said chuckling slightly.
            “Then explain it, where is predicate, what is subject of ‘think’ or is ‘think’ not the verb?” she said leaning forward. She jabbed the words at me and I jabbed back.
            “I have a bachelor’s degree in English, and I am telling you it’s correct,” I said standing and drilling each syllable into the page with my finger. t
            “I have degree, too, and you listen to me, I am superior to you,” she said.
            “I will not be disrespected, and this whole I’m your superior thing, “ I began, “isn’t going to work on me. It’s just going to make me angry.”
            She scrunched up her face. Her eyes sucked into little slits while she glared at me. A kid ran into the glass wall and the glass pane shook like a snapping linen sheet.
            “Why do you get so angry?” she asked tilting her head, her eyes opening slightly. She sniffled, and ran a hand across her cheek, and I sat down.
            “You disrespected me, Carol, asking me that, it’s a common expression,” I said. I was glad she didn’t press further. I had no answer for why it was correct; I just knew it was. I took a deep breath, and Carol looked at the question again.
            “Oh, I understand,” she said and handed me back the paper.
The night outside my window is silent. It’s a deafening silence that contrasts against the noise in the hallway like a note, a bass line, tucked down beneath the layers of melody and percussion in a song, a little rhythm you try to hear like a whisper and then can’t get out of your head. I hear a door creak open above me, and then it slides shut in a tiptoe. If this were America I’d be in the hallway, pulling this kid out the door and hurting him in the street. I don’t think I’d be alone either. But the man in the hallway speaks more Korean than anyone in the building, and it’d be hard to explain to the Korean police why I was hitting him. It’d be even harder to explain to my work—the work that pays for my apartment and bills, and pays well enough to keep me fed and clothed—why my knuckles are cut up.
            He screams and rattles the door. He fights with the door like a prisoner fighting with his cell. I keep waiting for someone to do something. I’m certain he’s here, slurring his words and panting, because of a woman. In the pauses between his machine gun bursts I can hear her growl in a forceful whisper through the door. Like most women under the age of 25—and I assume she’s that young because of this—she probably loves the attention, the thought that she’s so seductive and alluring that she’s driven this man crazy. They battle each other in Korean and I’m standing by my knives and pots in the dark. For country that demands all of their men serve in the military, I find it odd they perform these embarrassing dramas so openly. Carol and I were walking home from work yesterday, she told me about Jesus and how she loved church, and I choked on my stifled laughs. A woman was stomping her foot, crying to her man at the bus stop. Shannon kept talking without looking over. I asked her what was going on, and she squinted before looking at the small scene. "Nothing," she said, and then continued preaching the word of the Lord.
            I’m standing by the door now. I hope someone comes out, I hope I don’t have to deal with this screaming man. His voice whirls around the small landing. It rocks and punches and howls. Then it stops. I hear him sob into a whisper. His knees clunk against the floor like two ball-peen hammers pressing against stone. His every movement echoes through the thin walls, and I go to sit down. As I sit, he takes in a large gust of air. He pants his way up the octave scale preparing to scream. He starts on ‘do,’ now ‘ray,’ now ‘me,’ and I’m fighting with the lock as he gets to ‘fa.’ The door flies open as if the hinges burst off and I’m walking at him like a gorilla.
            He’s thin, shrouded in a white trench coat and wearing bedazzled jeans. He’s on his knees, quiet now, hands clasped together, looking as if he were praying to the doorway. I bend over and press my lips close to his glinting, product hardened black hair that comes to points across his oval face.
            “You listen to me you mother fucker, if I hear one more fucking yell, I’m calling the fucking police. Shut…The Fuck…Up,” I shoot the last four words at him like bullets from a handgun. I stand up and ball my fists waiting for him to attack. I wait for him to scream some battle cry in Korean I don’t understand. At the very least I hope he understands what I just said.
            “Okay, I’m very sorry, I’ll be quiet,” he says in a whisper without taking his clasped hands away from his forehead. His breath smells like nail polish. He must be drunk on Soju, the national drink of Korea, and a drink that not only stings your nostrils like rubbing alcohol, but also tastes like rubbing alcohol.
            I walk back into the dark of my apartment. I know I should throw him out, but I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to hit him, or hurt him, or more importantly stomp around the street like an animal. I’m wearing a green Michael Collins Irish Whiskey t-shirt that was ripped into an idea of clothing in a street fight a few years ago, and flannel pajama pants. I lie down, and shut my eyes. I listen to him sob, and then stop. He whispers something through the door, and the woman whispers something back. He clunks down like machinery, and I hope he goes to sleep. I don’t know the number for the police, and even if I did, I don’t know enough Korean to tell them why they needed to come. And lastly, I don’t know my address. The street signs are covered in writing that looks like hieroglyphs or badly drawn stick figure cartoons to me.
            Now, I’m thinking about Carol. I wish she were in the hall screaming and shouting and I had a reason to crack her in the mouth. I also wish she were a man, so no one would get mad when I hit her. I lay on the covers, too hot to pull them up. I hear him winding up again, I hear him pulling in air, and growling at the door as he reaches for the handle.
            “God dammit,” I say to no one. I sit up and he’s panting as he gets ready to yell. I’m pulling on my shoes. He takes lets the air go deep down into his stomach in a big inhale. I fight with the lock again. My fingers are too angry to work together for the seconds it takes to open the door. He’s screaming, he’s crying, and fighting with the door again. The door bursts open, and he tucks himself into the thin slot between the doorframe and the corner of the wall.
            “It’s time to go,” I say moving towards him. He shrinks down and shakes his head, no.
            “You can leave on your own, or I can help you,” I say. He doesn’t move. “Then you need help,” I say balling his sleeve, his shirt, and his skin into my fist. I throw him down the five steps leading to the front glass doors.
            “Wait,” he says. He turns and I make a handle out of his jacket along his spine and grab his arm and kick open the front doors like an old West saloon. I hurl him into the street. I shut the doors and he’s stumbling towards me. It’s close to three in the morning. I grab him by his neck like a father and walk him towards the yellow streetlight glowing over the pitched-tile roof of a small square house set between two apartment buildings.
            “My friend, you don’t understand, please, my girlfriend,” he sobs. “Please, please…”
            “No, you don’t understand, asshole, it’s three o’clock in the morning,” I begin as we walk towards the church a block up. “I have work tomorrow, and you are keeping me awake,” I continue balling his neck in my fist. I want to crush him, and I feel him wince, this man that was once a soldier, and who is now crying in front of a girl’s door in bedazzled jeans. I throw him on the ice below a painting of Jesus, our breaths dissipate in the air like cotton falling over the glinting ice covering the street like a mirror. He sobs and tries to stand.
            “If I see you again tonight, I’m going to fucking kill you,” I say in a manner-of-fact tone. He pulls his knees to his chest, and presses his back into the cupped palms of Jesus.
            I turn to walk home. He stands up, and I turn and look at him. He sobs beneath the streetlight. I lock the front door and someone whispers, “Thank you,” from above. I lay down, and I know the people of the apartment building will thank me tomorrow. They’ll think me a hero. I try to sleep, but I know tomorrow Carol will have some fresh notes for me.
            “Why did you look so tired? You need to get your rest,” she’ll say.
            “A crazy man was screaming in my hallway for an hour. I had to physically throw him out the front door at three in the morning,” I’ll explain.
            “Well, tell him next time to yell earlier,” she’ll say. And I’ll lean back and nod, and tell her next time I’ll do that. 


Friday, January 14, 2011

Bumper Stickers

Daejeon is covered in bumper stickers. They don’t read, “Honk if you’re Horny,” and they’re not slapped on the backs of their Hondas. Instead, the same idea of multi-colored, poly-vinyl strips of advertising is bolted onto the facades of office buildings. Entire blocks look like the back of a hippie’s Volkswagen. But instead of Save the Whales, stick figures that look like pine trees without their needles are letting you know that Daniel Wong is the best accountant in the city.  This is a blunt city. Signs in English say things like, “Super Fun Sexy Dress Bar No. 1,” or, “Marine Boy Casual Man Bar.” They don’t think anything about cramming in “Come,” and “On Me,” in the same sign. They just think they are letting you know every possible fun thing about their establishment.
This is an innocent city with no sense of double entendres. There are no hidden meanings in, “Double Ball Blast,” the writing on the menu just means there are two dumplings in the soup. If you read a sign that says, “Come in the back door,” and if someone sees you giggling, they’ll never understand the explanation. They lack the international savvy of Seoul or Busan. They are still fascinated by white people, black people, and Americans in general. Yet, they lack any understanding of American culture and social graces. They’ll ask you your age, how old you are, and try to compliment you in a manner we would call a back handed compliment. “You usually look ugly, but today you look handsome,” wouldn’t have any insult added to it in Korea. They mean in comparison to the shitty way you usually look, you beat the odds and pulled yourself together this morning. This blunt, and sometimes roundabout way of speaking adds to their gullibility.
            I told three Koreans my mother was Korean, and they all said, “Really??” dragging the letters as their jaws hung in shock.  They didn't notice my rounded eyes, reddish black hair, or height apparently. When I laughed they pursed their lips as if I'd lied to them. The non-existence of crime adds to their trusting nature. The police don’t carry guns, and most restaurants leave the register on the counter so you can make your own change. If you tip someone, they chase you for blocks trying to give you your money back. They should close the borders, and not allow any more cynical foreigners in with their jaded stories of junkies walking through the streets pant-less holding a pistol, or talking about how they’ve been carjacked three times, or telling stories about stealing bread and beer from the local Costco. These illuminations about other cultures will only damage Korea’s national innocence.

Friday, January 7, 2011


As Americans we expect all, or most, of the tourists visiting our cities to speak English. Our cities swell from their interest. We curse them as they stand in packs of four or five clogging the sidewalks while they burrow in their neon fanny packs pulled as tight as corsets around their waists. We sigh and shake our heads when they order two shots and a beer and don’t tip the bartender. Then we laugh with malicious glee when they wander the room holding a dollar that no one will take. They wear heavy cameras around their necks that slump them forward like a hunchback while they read their travel books with Independence Hall glistening on the glossy cover. Or they wander around the Washington Monument squinting at the shimmering white marble obelisk while they whisper their native language to each other in a conspiratorial conversation.  The vast number of tourists from other nations makes us weary of learning any language, or educating ourselves on any of their cultures. We don’t hate them, they just disrupt our routine; they’re common and plentiful and treated with curiosity when it suits us, and disdain when they are inconvenient. We soften though when they attempt to speak our language, giving us the feeling of a master guiding an apprentice.
By fumbling through a, "Thank you," or clacking together a phrase devoid of prepositions like "I run store,” they ingratiate themselves to us. Other nations are not as weary of tourists as America.
         South Korea lacks the diversity of America. If you are not Korean than you are clearly a traveler. Surrounded by Japan, China, Thailand, and other popular destinations they see every tourist as a chance to improve their national reputation in the west. Being a travel afterthought, though, has left the nation with low self-esteem. They often ask me why I chose to come to their country as if it were a strange choice to make. Then they ask what I think of their country and hold their breath waiting for my answer. They wait for my answer with the posture of a housewife from the 1950s asking the other women in the neighborhood how her dinner party went. They take pride in the architecture and achievements of the nation as if they were their own. When I tell them I think their country is fantastic they breathe easily and smile. Men, women, and children often stop me, and friends of mine, on the street to practice their English. But with so few westerners to practice their English on, they don’t notice their mistakes until they are made aware of them. Or a difference in culture creates uncomfortable situations. Here is a list of the questions, comments, or chats I’ve had with different people (who will remain anonymous) since I arrived in Korea:
“Do you know about Jesus?”
“I love boobs.”
“What’s the matter with the thoughts in your head?”
“Do you have bad thoughts in your head?”
“How do I use high-five? Can I say, ‘I want the high-five,’ or do I say, ‘high-five me?’”
I showed a woman my arms, and she said, “You have tattoos.”
         “Yes,” I said.
         “Are you a gangster? I don’t want to talk anymore if you’re a gangster.”
“Can I hit you with belt? Some men enjoy it when they get hit with belt.”
“Are you a racist?” (This question was asked in the same tone this person used to ask which city I was from in America and how many brothers I had.)
“Do you want to come to church?”
         “Do you know why Jesus was born?”

         “Why did you come to Korea? No, seriously, why did you come to Korea?”

         “Are you a racist?” (asked by a different person)

         “Call me diamond ring.”

I hope, with practice, some day I can ask someone in Korean if they are racist. Or develop enough skill to say I love boobs when I’m asking for ice cream.