Memoirs of a Dangerous Beverage

In case you think this post is going to be about alcohol, brace yourself for a surprise.  It’s not.  It’s about coffee–or the effects thereof.

And before you arrange your arms before you and stand ready to engage in fisticuffs, let me say that I’m not about to slag java as something that’s bad for your health.  I happen to agree with those who say it’s good for you.  But if you like to drink the strong stuff, as I do, proceed with caution.

Yesterday morning as I was finishing up my last blog entry, I noticed I was running later than usual, and would have to take a quicker-than-thou shower and dive into my clothes if I was going to make it to work on time.  Luckily, I had enough coffee left over in the pot I’d brewed the day before to fill a small thermos.  I didn’t bother to heat it up and topped it off with enough milk to give it a nice tan.  

My wife Jina woke up and asked me, “Are you late?”  I didn’t need her to interfere with my concentration.  I had no time for breakfast, which I knew she’d insist on preparing, and didn’t even have time to brush my teeth (something I never do on an empty stomach anyway).  She heated up a slice of leftover pizza for me and put it in a plastic container for me to bring along.  I thanked her and split without a further word.

It was the last day of the two-week teaching session, and also a Friday, which meant the traffic might be worse than usual.  I grabbed a cab outside my favorite restaurant, which the owner had to close without explanation earlier this week.  It’s been like a death in the family; I’ll tell you more about it later.  

Despite being a middle-aged Korean man with a mustache (a rarity), the driver had photos of his favorite female K-pop stars adorning his dashboard, and was singing along to an insipid jingle fortified with a soul-deadening drum machine and/or synthesizer.  The “girl” who sang the song sounded as if she were just going through the usual meretricious motions in order to sustain her tenuous celebrity in the world of the short attention span and desperately competing specimens of mainly interchangeable semi-entertainment.  I was worried the song might get stuck in my head like a brain tumor, but fortunately it was vapid enough to evaporate shortly after I paid the driver and disembarked at my stop outside the subway station (although it did have the gall to re-emerge later in the day, to remind me that mediocrity almost always triumphs in popular pseudo-culture).

On the train I had to shed my coat and sweater, tossing them on the stainless steel pipes of the overhead rack and wedging them underneath my backpack so they wouldn’t go sliding back and forth and fly into somebody’s horrified lap.  I fitted my special symbiotic reading glasses behind the regular ones so I could proceed down the home stretch of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  The memory emerged that I still had to write brief evaluations for each of my seven main students (in this instance, seven turns out not to be such a lucky number), but I didn’t want to risk writing on the train as the movements of the conveyance threatened to jeopardize my already impenetrable handwriting.

I downed the cool thermos of Colombian coffee in one gulp, put away the reading doodads, took down the sweater and coat, put them back on, strapped on the backpack, and got off at my stop.  I noticed Jina had called, so I called her back and told her I’d made it all right and wasn’t going to be late after all.

At the bus stop I only had to wait a couple of minutes as female university students streamed past, pursuing their respective heroic academic destinies.  I got a seat on the bus and reassembled my reading gear, then hopped off the vehicle at my stop.  One five-minute stroll across a tree-lined path, then into a building and up three flights of stairs later I was in the teachers’ room.  Cheryl, the head teacher, was there to say hello and announce that she needed the student evaluations as soon as possible.  (Grace, the other teacher, didn’t go out of her way to greet me, as is her custom, riveted as she was to the contents of her computer screen.)

I said that would mean I’d have to do them during class time, which would probably fuck up my student survey results.  Mind you, Korean students are usually a dream to teach, at least in some ways.  The culture values education, and teachers are generally treated by their students (at least the adults) with respect.  A few weeks ago, however, one of my students volunteered that a lot of Koreans (he bravely included himself) are xenophobic, and that it takes them awhile for them to get used to the presence of us freaky foreigners.  I thanked him for his honesty, then ordered him to leave the classroom and never come back again (just kidding about the second clause).

All this is by way of saying that the group I was in charge of over the last two weeks was in some ways an exception.  Their counterparts in the other group were a wonderful bunch–always enthusiastic and willing to speak. They even sang along to Tom Lehrer’s “Pollution.”  But my class was, for the most part, a pain in the ass.  Even though at one point I was paranoid enough to flatter myself with the self-loathing suspicion that their passive-aggressive attitude was directed at me in particular, the other two teachers had the same problem with them.  Individually they were fine, more or less.  Collectively, they sucked.  (The other class, meanwhile, had almost miraculous chemistry.  Maybe that’s why they enjoyed Tom Lehrer’s song about the elements so much.)

So I was in no mood to make nice with them when I entered the room.  I also felt damned if I did, damned if I didn’t, since if I kissed their asses on the day of the survey, it might appear too obvious.  But I didn’t know what else to do besides tell them I had some important paperwork to take care of.  I thought they might even have the decency to cut me some slack.  I also had to excuse myself to go and brush my teeth (several years ago a Japanese student I’d taught back in the U. S. had asked me, “Teacher, did you brush teeth?”  “No, I didn’t.  Why?”  “Smell.”).

I was officially fucked, and of course it was my own stupid fault for blowing off the evaluations until the last minute.  You can accuse me of unprofessionalism, or being jaded from having done this shit for over twenty years, but after awhile you run out of euphemisms when you’re writing watered-down comments about students who are not exactly going out of their way to distinguish themselves as intrepid explorers of the English language frontier, and certainly not pioneers.  For all the popularity of English words such as “creativity” and “imagination” in Korea today, the culture worships conformity more thoroughly than originality, which is one thing it has in common with the United States, I suppose (although I’d like to think my own culture does a bit more to nurture individual innovation, at least on paper). 

Besides, most of them don’t even want to be there anyway.  They’re there because their bosses forced them to sign up for the program.  It might not even be an exaggeration that the whole experience doesn’t mean shit to them (again, I’m referring only to the group I just taught; to leaven the attack slightly, they weren’t really all that bad; I’m just a crank who tends to slag people when I’m pissed off–unless it was just the coffee, and I haven’t had any yet today, so I guess it’s safe to say that my wife’s diagnosis is accurate and deep down I’m an absolute heartless prick).

When I got back from brushing my teeth, the students were all still sitting there, not saying a word to one another.  I needed to activate them.  So, even though I’d already distributed the sheets of questions on the topic (“Men, Women, and Relationships”), I added a few more questions to the board, modeled an answer to one of the questions for them, apologized again for having to resort to bureaucratic grunt work, and marveled as their jaws actually started moving and English words proceeded from their mouths in exotic and unorthodox displays.

I hadn’t specified that the paperwork I’d referred to consisted of my evaluations of them, the students, although I’d considered saying something nasty like, “If you guys don’t start talking to each other, it’s going to be hard for me to praise your efforts in these evaluations.”  I also didn’t want to give them any advantage over me; if they knew I was writing the evaluations (and I think my sole female student was perceptive enough to figure it out as I was trying to define the word “flirt” for her, as it appeared in one of the questions on the sheet from the legally photocopiable book Conversation Inspirations; I noticed her glancing at the documents in my lap, and as she’s no dummy, I think she was able to put two and two together; whether she shared her observation with her classmates is another matter), then it would mean they’d be home free to write whatever they wanted in their surveys of me and the other teachers (which they wouldn’t be receiving until later in the day from the human resources guy who works for the company that recruited me).

(While I was writing the questions on the board, I grumbled about the student who was absent, then snapped at him when he got to class, asking why he’d missed so many hours yesterday.  He reminded me that he’d been sick, then I apologized for forgetting, pausing to remove my foot from my mouth.  The only reason I’d asked him was that Cheryl had asked me which classes he’d missed and what his excuse had been.  I’d been too numb to remember either piece of information.  The excuse may well have been bullshit, as his attendance had been appalling, even though–or because–he was one of the better students in the group.)

This entry has already gone much longer than I’d planned it to, so I’ll wrap it up by saying that the worst is yet to come.  If I’m not too traumatized when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll let you know what else happened there and then.

Thanks for your patience.

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