Confessions Of A Human Pinball

It feels good to be back.

In the fall I was underemployed, and it seemed all I did was sit around reading books.  That was okay.  At least I learned something.  Of course, by now I’ve forgotten it all, so I guess I didn’t learn anything after all.  Reading can be inefficient that way, at least when it comes to nonfiction.  The only way you can retain information is if you go back and review, take notes, and memorize passages, and who has time to do that?  Or else you can share what you’ve read with others while the material is still fresh in your mind.

These days I have little time to read and hardly any energy to write.  I teach English in Korea for a living, and since I’m a freelancer my schedule fluctuates from month to month.  To avoid another dry spell like the one I had last fall, I try to be vigilant about picking up new jobs whenever old gigs expire (also to humor my wife Jina, whose arm must be getting tired from holding a gun up to my head for all these years).

Anyway, I lost a good gig a few weeks ago.  Although I wasn’t exactly fired, I’d been expecting it to continue for a whole year, but the students only let me teach them for three months.  I’ll tell you why I think so in a second.

It was a sweet deal, considering it wasn’t that far from where I live–only one bus ride and two subway rides away–and I got paid fifty bucks an hour, the going rate for teaching classes of adults in a Korean company.  Because the students are so busy, they’d often only wanted to study for the first of the two hours they’d signed up for, but I still got paid for both hours.

My kind of job.

As with this blog, I have a tendency to sometimes put my foot in my mouth when I teach and bite my toenails.  It’s a little awkward, especially when I don’t take off my shoe, but the yoga classes keep me from getting a Charley horse.  In this case the boo-boo I made was saying something that wouldn’t have elicited any gasps or sanctimonious horrified shudders back in New England, but in modern Korea proved a premature announcement.

We were talking about differences between men and women, and somehow the subject of gays came up.  I said that as far as I knew, people were born gay and could not change their sexual orientation.  I added that it was wrong for others to try to change them, regardless of what the Bible (or the Koran, a book I didn’t mention at the time) says.

I noticed a few of my students exchanging looks, and the next day I received a phone call from my recruiter, who said the students wanted to bail on me after my initial three-month period was up two weeks from then.  I ventured to tell her why I thought they wanted a different teacher, and she sounded sympathetic–to me, not them.

The remaining two weeks of the class went all right, even though one especially religious student stopped coming, reinforcing my assumption about what had happened.

Of course, when you work as a foreigner in Korea, you can second-guess until your ass flies off your body and goes into orbit around Jupiter and still never figure out why something went down.  After awhile, you just get used to not knowing and shrug it off.

Obtuseness is bliss.

I have a new job in the same time slot–well, that’s not quite right.  I picked up a job for five hours a day that pays approximately half as much per hour as the previous gig, teaching kids.  It takes about an hour to get there.  It’s in the boonies.

That job is from one pm to six pm, twice a week.  What sucks is that on the same days I have to get up and teach a one-hour class in another part of town at 7:40, then go back home, grab a shower and a ten-minute nap if I can squeeze one in before taking a taxi to the train station.

Those days I spend about four hours shlepping back and forth, using a complicated network of buses, subways, and taxis.  Waiting is always involved, whether for one of the above conveyances or for a streetlight to change.  Patience is not always my strong point.

On alternating days I teach a class from 7 am to 8 am in yet another part of town.  That one’s not too far away, although it entails a short cab ride to the station.  (I could take two different buses instead, though that would entail getting up even earlier in the morning.)

After class I walk past the restless river of cars and wait for one of the local bookstores to open, usually stopping for a bite to eat in the meantime.

Then I go home and take a long nap while my wife goes off to teach kids all afternoon.  All the constant movement (which miraculously leads to an incredible absence of weight loss, probably because I stuff my face with too many carbs throughout the day to keep my energy level up) means more showers and changes of clothes, which means having to do the laundry every other day, usually as a way to punctuate the epic naps.

In the evening I take a bus to the subway station, go down to the far end of the platform to reduce the distance I’ll have to walk when I make the transfer at the station where I pick up the connecting train, take that one to my destination, and walk to the building where I teach four times a week (including Saturdays).

The commute home from there is twenty minutes shorter.  Since rush hour’s over by the time the class ends, I can take the bus most of the way home, then transfer to another bus, then another, or else skip those last two transfers and walk.  I’m happy to do that on those nights when the air has the decency to be breathable.

Mind you, the work itself is satisfying, but all the commuting is for the birds–or would be if they didn’t have wings to fly.

It’s an absurd way to live, but at least it makes the absurdity of death that much more comprehensible.

And that’s something.


The Storm Before The Calm

Last Sunday after my holy colleagues and I dispatched our lunch, while I was groaning on my haunches, trying to reassemble my scrambled vertebrae, the geeky pastor who’d be harmless if he weren’t a skilled manipulator of toddlers’ tender young minds distributed documents to us teachers (I don’t know why I’m counted among the teachers since I don’t believe in God, don’t understand Korean, and would prefer to let all the kids go out and play instead of wasting their time listening to a lot of high-falutin’ fictitious pre-masticated infinitely recycled mumbo-jumbo) and went over them with us in detail.

My wife Jina had somehow escaped the proceedings (not that, unlike me, she’d wanted to), and I couldn’t understand the pastor’s mumbled explanation of where she’d gone.  I took it she had other pious duties to attend to, like giving Christ a tetanus shot to prevent his ghost from being infected by those pesky nine-inch nails.

Since the deathless text, edited by God Himself and jizzed upon by Jesus to invoke his seal of approval, was written in Korean, a language that remains incomprehensible to me, I was under no obligation to either read or understand it, at least in my view, the only one available to my eyes when it comes to these infinitely mysterious, somberly ludicrous matters.

In my case, the dorky pastor’s kindly presentation likewise fell upon trampoline-like eardrums, even if it was digested more tenderly by the Korean teachers, who have both the wherewithal and the presence of mind to take these sacred matters seriously instead of responding with a symphony of raspberries and armpit-farts (something that might inspire the children more, and that would be more in tune with contemporary Korean corporate culture, a watered-down Asian version of what’s available in the United States, only that much more sanitized and gutted and lacking in any edge whatsoever–cardboard entertainment with a styrofoam heart).

The stapled document he gave us was no fewer than seven pages long.  Seven pages!  It’s fucking Sunday school, for Christ’s sake.  Next time he’ll give us a list of topics for the kids to write their dissertations on.

Respond to the claim that Jesus was actually crucified at Herod’s department store.  Provide existing evidence, cogent counter-arguments, and a hermeneutical analysis of the exegetical dichotomy implied by Dorothy the dancing dopy diplodocus.

Korean people generally don’t say much during meals, unless there’s alcohol involved, so most of the sounds produced during the lunch we’d eaten before this pseudo-academic assault involved steel chopsticks clinking against steel bowls and the muffled slurping of noodles.

For some reason–probably just a valiant attempt to break the ice–the pastor asked me about my work.  Although I’m a ham and don’t mind being the center of attention during social gatherings due to gnawing neediness and a morbid desire to be liked even by people I respect even less than myself, it’s not always my bag, and at these kind of manufactured proceedings I prefer to blend into the plastic woodwork and be a fake fly on the wallflower.

But since after three months of financial constipation my teaching schedule is finally starting to pick up, I didn’t mind telling my fellow mortals a little about what I’m doing to make a living these days (not that they’d return the favor, either because they were too insecure about their English ability or since it’s considered impolite to say much over meals in this culture unless everyone’s getting shitfaced–and fat chance that’s going to happen in a fucking church).

When Jina finally appeared--deus ex machina, if you’ll pardon the blasphemy–and please don’t go all Islamic State on my Charlie Hebdo-ish ass–that was my cue to get up and leave, which I did with considerable difficulty, considering we were sitting on the floor.  I felt like someone untied from the rack.

Besides, I had to go dictate a page from a religious article to a group of old guys whose hobby is studying English once a week after church.  It only takes twenty minutes, so I don’t mind doing it too much, and they’re always gracious and appreciative, apart from being condescending due to their choice to be among the chosen.

I felt like asking them, “Why do you guys believe in God?  Don’t you realize it’s all just a bunch of bullshit?”  But I thought it might come across as disrespectful and they could take it the wrong way.  Karl Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses, but it’s never done much for me.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s all one long bad acid trip.  I guess what makes it popular is its communal nature, even though that’s the same thing that makes it so corruptible and so dangerous.

Insane, in fact.

I believe in my wife more than I could ever believe in God, if only because she sometimes scares the living shit out of me.

For instance, a couple of days ago she freaked out all over again about my anal-retentive collection of photocopied teaching materials I’ll probably never use again, stored in cardboard boxes in the corner of this room, and the double rows of paperbacks on the shelves, many of which I haven’t even read and may not live long enough to get around to unless I can get my hands on some telomerase (no, thanks; seventy or eighty years, assuming that’s the number I’ve got, is long enough–let someone else take my seat on the roller coaster for a change).

“Get rid of these books or I’ll burn them all!”

Whatever you say, Gregorio Cortez.

As if to underscore her point, she proceeded to hurl them from the shelves onto the floor.  Luckily she stopped short of sabotaging the lion’s share of my library, even though she demanded that I pick the books up and trade them in for cash.

Two days later I chose twenty titles to part with, stacking them on the table and placing them in bags to take down to the bookstore.  It wasn’t easy to do, since there were a few things I would have liked to re-read (for example, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainvillea, Jonathan Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Richard Price’s Lush Life, and Antonio Lobo Antunes’ The Land at the End of the World.  There were even a couple I would have enjoyed reading at least once, such as Stephen Wilson’s The Bloomsbury Book of the Mind and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.  

(I couldn’t get into Sweet Tooth–through no fault of the author, as McEwan’s a great writer–because I have a mental block that doesn’t allow me to read serious fiction written by a man in a woman’s voice.  I just can’t “hear” the woman’s voice, for some reason.  I have no problem with it the other way around; Gillian Flynn’s Nick Dunne is a convincing narrator in Gone Girl, although I thought the chapters written in the second half of the book in Amy Elliott Dunne’s voice were much stronger.  Maybe we’re all prisoners of our gender to a greater extent than we’d like to admit.  Or maybe I’m just a sexist shithead.

The same thing happened to me before when I tried to read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.  Again, a great writer–and a phenomenal creative writing teacher–but when I tried to read it, all I could hear was Golden speaking in a high-pitched imitation of a Japanese woman’s voice, which sounded silly in my inner ear.

As John Cleese of Monty Python would say when asked if the rumors that Dimmesdale Piranha nailed men’s heads to the floor and stitched people’s legs together, “Well, it’s better than bottlin’ it up, innit!  Dimmesdale was a gentleman.  And what’s more, he knew how to treat a female impersonator.”)

When I came home from trading the books in, I told Jina how much the clerk at the store had given me.  She looked at me sadly and apologized, contrite about her outburst a few days before.

But she’s right–I do have to get rid of some more books, because, like a couple of claustrophobic astronauts, we’re running out of space.

(P. S.  I’d like to apologize for the two typos in the previous entry.  I didn’t have time to go back and proofread it before hitting the publish button as Jina suddenly popped up out of the bedroom like a Jacqueline-in-the-box.)

Mediocrity Triumphs!

When I was a little boy, I went to the Boston Museum of Science and saw some baby chickens being born in an incubator.  Man, those were some hot chicks.

Q)  Why did the lumberjack clear-cut the forest?

A)  It was getting too big for its birches.

Q)  What did the logger who suffered from terrible hay fever say?

A)  “I can’t see the forest for the sneeze.”

I’m proud to announce that I’ve been given a job at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, better known as Gitmo, the notorious Home of American Torture, as their Chief Distributor of Bad Puns.

Speaking of Gitmo, have you seen Mos Def’s video in which he tries to see what being force-fed liquid food is like?  He can’t stand it for more than a second, as the procedure is too painful to endure.  How nice that those prisoners who find their lives at the “camp” utterly intolerable are not even allowed the satisfaction of a dignified death through a hunger strike as they’re kept unwillingly alive in such a sinister manner.  Bon appetit, putative terrorists.

Yesterday I participated in a contest of sorts at my wife’s church.  We sang a song entitled “This Is My Father’s World.”  (My real father once shared the philosophical observation that no one really owns anything and we’re mainly just a Planet of Renters.)  I had practiced the song religiously, drilling the Korean lyrics into my head while sitting on the toilet for a grand total of five minutes.  Since I think it’s silly to believe in God, especially considering how many horrible things happen in the world while you wait (that’s meant as a reference to an overused TV commercial catch-phrase, not a criticism of the reader, who’s apt to be a better citizen than I’ll ever be), I didn’t feel  particularly compelled to memorize the sucker.

Jina had also told me ahead of time that we’d be surrounded by several other singers at the time, so I figured I could fake my way through it.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Because Jina is holier than thou, whoever thou might be, we’d already been stuck in the church and portions of its vast compound since ten in the morning, and the “talent show” didn’t commence till two p.m.  What a waste of a semi-beautiful day.  I was also restless because I wanted to be doing something more productive–or at least fun–with my time instead of farting around with a bunch of benighted if well-behaved lunatics.  

While Jim Morrison may have said that “All the children are insane,” (thanks for that authoritative diagnosis, Dr. Morrison, who cleverly and cutely arrived at the self-fellating anagram for himself “Mr. Mojo Risin'”), I’m delighted to announce that most of the kids I “teach” in Sunday school are still pure and wise enough not to go in for all that God and Jesus bullshit.

As the irrepressibly uptight twerp who conducts the class blurts his instructions to them through his microphone, performing all kinds of ignominious contortions for them to imitate while indoctrinating them in the ostensible ways of the Lord, I make faces at some of those children whose attention he fails to hold, while the rest of the kids who ignore him daydream about magnificent television cartoons they’ve watched.

Whenever the rest of the congregation–junior or senior–lower their heads in groveling prayer, I look around to see if anyone else is bowing out of the ludicrous ritual; that way I’d know I might have an ally.  

But no–hence, I have to keep up appearances, which is a big part of Korean culture–perhaps the main part, if not the only part, at least as far as I can tell, or as near, as an old housemate of mine from Vermont used to say.

Anyway, it’s Monday morning here and I’ve got to get up and get ready for work in a few minutes, so I’ll cut to the chase:  despite the formidable competition of the descendants of Orpheus and the sirens, people born with music notes flowing through their veins, Jina and my team managed to come in second place.  All I did was intone the words in a nondescript way, hiding my voice in a thicket made up of the voices of my fellow singers, peering at the lyrics with quasi-literate comprehension through my handy symbiotic reading glasses (you have to wear them at the same time as your regular glasses–they fit comfortably right inside them).  First place went to a group of crooning teenage girls who had us beat hands-down on the adorability factor.  

Despite the advice I always give to my public speaking students, I never made eye contact with the audience once–maybe because if I had I would have burst out laughing at being involved in such a fraudulent farce.

Although we were not privileged to win one of the coveted electric fans distributed during the raffle afterwards, Jina received a prize of one hundred thousand won (about a hundred US bucks) after I’d already high-tailed it out of there.

I went on to meet a friend for Mexican food and beers, and he soundly defeated me at chess.

I hope to win at the game some day before I die, but if I held my breath I would have become a chess piece myself a long time ago, ready to nestle endlessly in my box all by myself, everlastingly out of the game, sequestered in a boneyard of old discarded chessmen and -women of all shapes and sizes, hidden under the tessellated arena of the boring board.

Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

Despite being pointless, asinine, frustrating, tedious, ludicrous, futile, and depressing, life is worth living.  Sort of.  It’s always nice to know that it’s never too late to kill yourself.  I’m kidding, of course.  I mean about life being worth living. It’s not.  Well, sometimes it is.  It’s too bad you can’t just delete the shitty parts as they’re happening.  They seem to constitute far too much of what passes for life, both at an individual and a universal level.  If you don’t believe me, read on.

As I’ve told you before, I’m getting sick of Korea and am eager to return to the land of mass-murdering psychopaths. It’s impossible to take a vacation in Korea without leaving the country.  That’s how stressful it is.  It’s exploding with stress.  Of course, it’s a hell of a lot worse if you’re actually Korean.  Then the only way you can ever really let your hair down is by getting the fuck out of here and never coming back.

At least that’s how it appears to me.  Mind, I have a less than infinitesimal knowledge of the language, and even though I’ve lived here for eight years, a lot of the time I still have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on around me.

My wife Jina tells me I was depressed back in the U.S. too, and maybe she’s right.  But at least my life hadn’t gone into re-runs yet.  

The thing that’s pissing me off today is not the chronic pain of prostatitis and how it necessitates an influx of ibuprofen that’s giving my heart a run for its red money (by the way, I finally found out the source of the impotence–impotency?–I literally grappled with a month or two ago:  acupuncture; afterwards I was a little miffed at the doctor for pretending not to know the source of my problem; lucky for him I’m a slow enough study that he was able to treat me several times for the pain in my ass caused by caffeine’s irritating effect on the urinary sphincter muscle before I was able to trace the side effect of runaway flaccidity to his nerve-racking needles–not that I have anything against the man personally:  everyone’s got to make a living; now that I can get it up again, I’m more upbeat and there’s no need for me to beat him up).

No, it’s the fact that my adult students of English as a foreign language appear to be making no progress whatsoever in mastering the language.  It may just be that I’ve become afflicted by the cantankerous, impatient, bali-bali (“hurry, hurry!”), Jack Lemmon on crystal meth virus of contemporary Korean culture, and as a consequence have become unrealistically demanding and expecting of instant results.  When it comes to learning another language, delayed gratification is the norm, especially for those who’ve already been studying it in the classroom for years.  The plateau of intermediate ability is vast and seemingly endless.

I’ve griped before about how time-consuming it is to proofread my students’ speeches.  They have to give a new one every week.  I have to keep coming up with new topics for them to write and speak about.  Tonight while I was going through the latest batch, I marveled at the plethora of errors in each one.  I believe I’ve saved each of their speeches somewhere in my sea of clutter.  I keep meaning to assemble them and try to trace any individual development or heroic breakthroughs or climactic triumphs of syntax.

Instead I’m met with the same swamp of mediocrity, week after week.  It’s discouraging because I like my students and I want them to learn.  As their teacher, I think it must be my fault that their English isn’t getting any better.  Or maybe it is and I just can’t see it.  Am I becoming a crusty old perfectionist, a desiccated prune?

Today I lost it while teaching another class of young guys in their early twenties, underachievers who are studying in a no-frills, low-budget university program sponsored by a department store.  (Hey kids, get your diploma from a vending machine!)  It’s my second week of subbing them.  The weather in Seoul is starting to get hot and humid, though it’s a long way from the sticky misery yet to come, and monsoon season’s just around the corner.

Anyway, after letting them rearrange their desks in formations of four so they could face one another, I found that one foursome was using the opportunity to chat among themselves while I was trying once again to explain how to use third conditionals (if sentences in the past contrary to what actually happened).

“What the hell is wrong with you guys!” I said, or something to that effect.  But I was just getting started.  I let them have it, unleashing the whole arsenal of caffeinated wrath.  It was a controlled explosion (inspired, perhaps on some level by Albert Finney’s tirade in The Browning Version) but it got the point across.  I asked them what they were doing when they were supposed to be writing answers to questions in their textbook containing prompts with “if” clauses.

Afterwards it occurred to me that they just didn’t understand how to form the grammar structure, so I gave them another demonstration on the board.  Learning a language is a huge pain in the ass; it demands endless repetition in order for the learner to absorb the lessons at hand.  Otherwise it’s a total waste of time.

It’s also possible that my wife’s dictatorial approach has influenced me a bit.  As the old saying goes, “You become what you hate.”  (Once again, I’m just jesting.)

Midlife Crisis (Default Setting)

Actually, it’s presumptuous to label one’s funk, angst, or funky angst, a midlife crisis, considering no one knows how long each of us has got, but at least the phrase has yet to be reduced (or elevated, depending on your perspective) to a brand name.

Apologies for not writing for awhile.  The title of this post may offer you a clue.

One of the hardest things for any of us to endure is boredom.  Unless you’re some kind of glamorous movie star, playboy, or freedom fighter, it constitutes an unfortunately large part of most of our lives.  This is a pity, as you only go around once, unless you include all the cycles that make up our orbit around the sun and the relentless hands turning around the clock, giving everybody the finger.

I have been teaching English as either a second or a foreign language for over twenty years, and I’m fucking sick of it.  Don’t get me wrong:  I like my students, and I appreciate the effort most of them are making to try to improve their skills in a difficult language that’s wholly different from theirs, but I’m tired of having to do the same thing over and over again, year after year.  I also feel too worn out (as well as afraid I couldn’t score another type of gig, considering I’m half a century old and less marketable than I was before in the jaundiced eyes of the youth-seeking workplace, especially in the crowded field I’m in, which is full of people who share my prodigious lack of skills and ambition, many of them half my age and a lot better looking) to reinvent myself.

So I trudge on.  

The other night (okay, early morning) I had a dream in which I was yelling at a group of students because they weren’t paying any attention to me.  When I say that, I don’t mean they were just avoiding eye contact.  Their backs and heads were turned away from me as they slumped over their desks.  They looked as if they just wanted to get some sleep.  Maybe my unconscious mind was making some sort of product plug, even though I was already drifting like a cloud over Slumberland Farms myself.

The funny thing was that I kept berating them even after some low-level administrative observer appeared to keep tabs on me, freely employing the F-word (meaning “fuck”), then apologizing in an angry tone for choosing that term, and just as quickly saying it was utterly justified in my next breath.

When I went to sub a two-hour class of young adults on the outskirts of the city yesterday, the students tricked me by asking if they could take a break–at the beginning of class!   Since I’m as gullible as the most devout follower of the farthest-fetched religion you can come up with, I said they could.  They turned out to be mainly cooperative and seemingly keen to learn and practice their English, at least during the first hour.

After we took a second break and I introduced the grammar point (third conditionals, meaning “if” sentences that refer to situations contrary to the fact in the past–for example, “What would have happened if Charlie Chaplin had been elected prime minister of Great Britain instead of Winston Churchill?  Would he have waged war against Hitler for having stolen his mustache?”).  In accordance with my dream, several eyes started to close.  As I was only a sub and gaining their respect was that much more of a challenge, instead of acting out my own unconscious episode I just apologized for waking them up after asking each one of the sleepers a question.  

I also found it odd that they were waxing comatose before lunch, not having a full stomach requiring the attention of their blood cells to aid them in digesting their food as an excuse.  Was I that boring?  Were they?

One thing that prevents me from lashing out at students, despite my status as a superfluous dust rag, is not so much that they’re nominal adults who’ve earned the right to be treated with respect and dignity, as the notion that they, like me, are slaves locked into a system that doesn’t care about them.  Although the system is ostensibly made up of human beings, it has, paradoxically, become inhuman, not to say inhumane.

The original term for what we now call fascism was corporatism, coined, if I’m not mistaken, by Sir Benito Mussolini. I know as little about politics and history as I do about anything else, so I’m not going to go out of my way to impress you with a dazzling display of breathtaking ignorance.  I just find it curious that there’s a link between the two ideologies, one of which sounds relatively benign to certain ears (for instance, Mickey Mouse’s), the other positively malignant (unless your name is Hitler, God rest his ball).

Don’t ask me if the apex of human civilization is a world of people publicly hunched in atomic solitude over their sophisticated phones, universally ignoring one another in their hungry pursuit of the latest ephemeral information.  Maybe so.  Or maybe it’s some of the things I’ve been reading on Korean T-shirts lately:  You’re So Vague, All Crackled Out, Armed, I Don’t Need You Anyway, I’m Hatin’ It, Life Sucks (that was actually on a guy’s baseball cap), The Bubble Gum Killer Bug, The July Noodle Mood Journal, or the most eloquent one of all, Acne.

The astonishing thing about all of those urgent messages was that there wasn’t a single typo in the lot, which is more than I can say for one sentence (practically even one phrase) of any of my students’ written work.  (Proofreading is a big part of my job these days, and it’s remarkably time-consuming, tedious, and soul-destroying.  Korean writers of English seem determined to violate every rule set down in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, being as redundant, bland, and passive as possible, favoring negative constructions over directness or a refreshing display of simplicity (when it’s called for) or a point succinctly made (that clause is also in the passive voice, proving the viral possibilities of hypocrisy).

So if my writing has become unreadable, at least I can have them to blame.

And if I managed to put you to sleep, please don’t forget to turn off your computer when you wake up.



A Beautiful Day to Learn

Tom had to teach all day on Saturday, but his students were agreeable and eager to learn English.  It could be rough going sometimes, especially as it was a five-month course and they weren’t even halfway through yet.  Spring fever had hit, and everyone commiserated about having to spend every Saturday high up in an office building, instead of frolicking in the park nearby with the children flying gliders and kites, and operating remote-controlled dune buggies that rumbled intrepidly over the helpless grass.

When Tom was but a wee boy himself, knee-high to an aphid, he thought Cat Stevens was asking not “Where Do the Children Play?” but why do they play?  Perhaps that accounted for his pseudo-philosophical disposition.

He’d found it funny that not only did visitors to the park all walk in the same direction around the track, as if it were some kind of unspoken rule, but also that no one ventured out onto the grassy zone about the size of an American football field.  But then, to his delight and relief, he saw from the window of the building at the end of the workday that people had flooded the space, no doubt obeying an instinct to connect with what remained of nature. Maybe they’d just been giving the grass some time to recover from the cruel, vicious, savage winter (pardon this histrionic use of the pathetic fallacy).

The students had to give two speeches every week–one for Tom’s class, and one for another teacher’s–which they wrote and prepared the week before.  They emailed Tom and his manager the rough drafts of their speeches, and Tom sat down with each one and performed whatever surgery was needed to make it sound more like native English.  At first he’d balked at this task, finding it onerous and thankless.  After having taught for so many years, Tom was bitter and jaded.  Since he was also a failed and unpublished author, he resented having to devote time he could be spending generating his own work to “changing dirty diapers,” as a friend of his had put it (although the friend had been referring to American college professors having to wrestle with hackneyed or sophomoric student prose).

But later he changed his tune or gave his attitude a tune-up, as he realized he could benefit the students and they were making a noble effort to improve their English.  They also seemed to appreciate his input, and they followed through when he asked them to copy the speeches over with his corrections and changes.

Each speech was only meant to last three minutes, but most of them dragged on longer than that, usually because the speaker hadn’t practiced reading it enough times to memorize it, or because he choked and ad-libbed irrelevant non-sequiturs as padding long after he’d flatlined.  And yet, they managed to pull through every time, often beginning by saying “Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” and concluding by saying, “Thank you for listening to my speech.”  Tom was inclined to dissuade them from using this formula, but his colleague said he let his own class use such lines, as it gave them something to hold onto.  Tom then figured they already had enough on their plates to write, revise, and memorize two speeches every week without his having to turn into Mr. Heimrich Himmler of the Grammar Brigade.

After the students had all had time to give their speeches, Tom had a private conference with each of them for five minutes to provide them with feedback and ask if they had any questions.  Since they were lower middle-aged Korean males, and therefore reticent in such situations, they usually didn’t.  By that time of day, they were just happy to have gotten the whole thing over with and probably wanted to get the hell out of there so they could kick back and relax with their families or go out eating and drinking with friends.

Tom’s wife Soonhee called him while he was standing in the park, having just said goodbye to one of his students, who was walking away with his wife and bearing their three-year-old son on his shoulders.  The boy knew one word of English–hello–which he must have said to Tom at least twenty-five times in the course of their brief walk.  Out of courtesy Tom said hello back every time.  The kid was cute, but the maddeningness of the exchange led Tom to make a mental note not to have any children–at least not directly, Dustin Hoffman be damned (Hoffman said he envied women the ability to get pregnant and give birth and wished he could do so himself).  The boy also kept repeating the letter “W,” evidently referring to the robotic anthropomorphic automobile he held in his hand, a toy that looked capable of singlehandedly either starting or ending a global thermonuclear war, depending on its mood.

Soonhee was mad at Tom for not calling him first.  She wanted to have dinner together.  He moseyed back to the subway station and stood the whole way home as sitting was a pain in the ass.  On the train he read Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s final novel, written when he was in his late eighties, an iconoclastic tribute to the Old Testament, Cain.  Tom appreciated Saramago’s going for the jugular by having Cain call God on his bullshit every time–from inciting Cain to murder his brother, to bringing down the walls of Jericho, from laying waste to the Israelites for making a golden calf to punishing Job as part of a deal made with Satan himself.  God was, as an old friend of Tom’s had put it, “a ubiquitous fascist.”

Tom looked forward to reading Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

Although he could just as easily have walked to the bus stop where he was due to meet Soonhee, Tom was too knackered from lugging a weighty backpack around for an hour and his suit was sticky from the unseasonable heat that had infiltrated this sunny may day.  He decided to wait for the bus, reading in the twilight about Cain’s imaginary encounter with Noah (who, oddly enough, resembled Russell Crowe).  One short ride later, he got off, sat down, and read some more, waiting for Soonhee to call him.

When his phone played its little jingle, he picked it up and dragged his finger across the screen to activate the sophisticated electronic mechanism as his manufacturer had trained him to.


“Where are you?” Soonhee asked.  “Why didn’t you call me?” 

“I’m at the bus stop in front of the Kimbap Cheongguk.  I thought you were going to call me.  I told you I’d be here in ten minutes.”

“Come to the restaurant we usually go to–no, I mean the one next door to it.”


Tom pressed the red hang-up icon and continued reading the book.  Another couple of paragraphs couldn’t hurt.  A few minutes later the phone rang again.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just reading a book.  I’ll be right there.”

When Tom found Soonhee waiting impatiently for him in front of the restaurant, he apologized and said he’d been reading about Noah.  Since she was a gungho fan of the bible and Christ, a woman for whom life couldn’t be Jesuzzy enough, he thought she’d be impressed.

She wasn’t; she was pissed.  Off, that is.

They sat down on some molded red plastic stools with black seats with holes in the middle around a round stainless steel table that also had a hole in the middle.  A man came over and lowered the telescopic stainless steel elephant’s trunk that sucked up the propane gas fumes from the grill as he used a pair of tongs to insert a bucket of hot coals into the hole in the table, replacing the grill on top of it.

He then brought them a stainless steel platter with a mound of raw pork on it and left it on the table.  Soonhee did the honors of cooking the meat, snipping the slabs of carnage with a pair of scissors devised expressly for the purpose.  As the smell of sizzling pork filled the air around them, competing with the sound of boisterous Korean men trading stories and boozing it up over bottles of soju at the next table, Soonhee’s mood softened, at least for the moment.

Tom found it curious that while Muslims eschewed pork because they found pigs unclean animals (not so, although certain dogs are–sorry to some Koreans–why not eat cats?  They’re clean as hell), Hindus didn’t eat beef since they deemed cattle sacred.  He wondered if there existed a species of shark that refused to eat people because they considered us humans unclean animals.  What would have been even funnier would be if they were dumb enough to think we were sacred.

After they’d finished their meal, another nail in Tom’s coffin as far as he was concerned, they proceeded slowly up the stone staircase that led to their home, otherwise known as the stairway to heaven on the highway to hell.  Having recently gotten into the habit of going for short hikes, Tom went up the steps at a brisk clip.

Soonhee, meanwhile, trailed behind him.  She raised her head and gave him a resentful look.  She didn’t appreciate his not waiting for her, even though she was as slow as a sleepy slug pushing a boulder the size of a pebble up a mountain of molasses.

“I smell like meat,” she said.

Tom thought that sounded like an odd choice for a come-on line.

“That’s okay,” Tom said.  “Just tell people you washed your hair with shampoo made of pig guts.”

“That’s a dirty joke!”

“No, it’s not.  A dirty joke is about sex.”

“It’s not funny.”

“Well, I bet the pig we ate didn’t think that was funny either,” Tom said with a smile.

“Don’t try to make me feel guilty.”

“I’m not.  I just don’t see why we should sugar-coat the truth.”

Soonhee wanted to go buy food at the supermarket, but Tom had been up since five in the morning and needed to get some sleep.  Soonhee was not pleased at his failure to acquiesce to her demands.  Tom decided to give her as wide a berth as possible, letting her commandeer the computer while he finished reading the Saramago book.

Cain, the first murderer according to biblical history (oxymoron?), turned out to be the hero the human race had never had, the man who had the guts to defy God, the biggest and most shameless mass-murderin’ genocidal wackadoo of them all and of the mall.

Too bad we couldn’t have elected Cain to be God instead.  He couldn’t have done a worse job than that yahoo Yahweh.  


Western I Versus Eastern We

Tom looked back with a feeling that was the opposite of nostalgia at a mishap that had befallen him several months before.  He’d had a female student who’d wanted to learn British English even though he, Tom, was American.  In fact, since she was his only female student at the time, he went out of his way to accommodate her.  More than that, he tried too hard.

That was his Achilles’ heel.  Or one of them anyway.  When it came to Achilles’ heels, Tom was a veritable centipede, if not a millipede.

Since the textbook his recruiter had provided him with featured American English, Tom went to a copy shop to find some materials for the student on one of their computer terminals.  He downloaded and printed several lists of British slang expressions, deciding against giving her the one that featured such expressions as “bell-end” and “knob-nose.”  Then he printed a PDF file of an episode of The Office.  Finally, he printed the lyrics to Tim Minchin’s irreverent, satirical song “Woody Allen Jesus.”

The student had told Tom she was Catholic, but Catholics tended to be more open-minded and less socially conservative than Protestants in Korea.

Or so he thought.

Tom made the mistake of dominating their discussions, fueled by too much caffeine.  Afterwards he’d apologize for being a talkaholic, feeling like an absolute shmuck.  The second time it happened, the woman didn’t seem to accept his apology.  When he asked if she’d like to play the Tim Minchin song on her laptop, she demurred, saying she’d prefer to listen to it at home.

She ended up dropping the class, much to Tom’s chagrin.  But his recruiter was nice about it and offered to find him another class to replace the loss.  Tom thanked her on the phone and went back to brood over Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” on YouTube.  

Of course, Tom never found out the reason the student had dropped the class, but decided not to pursue it.  In his experience, when Korean people made up their minds they didn’t like someone, they dropped him like like a radioactive brick.  

And some of them were so touchy!  As well as picky!  He’d even been warned that the student in question was picky, so in some ways his self-defeating selections proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He also smacked the imaginary mosquito standing on his forehead when he realized that the script from The Office was from the American version of the show, not the British one.  David Brent’s name was nowhere in sight.  It was also painfully bereft of laughs.

Tom missed the classes he’d taught several years ago, which had mainly consisted of young people of both sexes in their twenties and thirties.  They were always there by choice, so motivating them to practice their English in class was never a struggle (not that they would ever do their homework, belying the myth that all Koreans are pathological workaholics).

From there he went to a situation that was an improvement in some ways in that it paid better and he didn’t have to teach as many hours, but there were sometimes stretches that lasted several months in which he was saddled with classes of sluggish, phlegmatic, seemingly obtuse salarymen.  Since Tom had been teaching Koreans for so many years, he felt entitled to draw certain conclusions about them, though he knew it was a slippery slope that could easily descend into bigotry.  

There was just something about the culture that was so inherently oppressive, life-denying, and fun-suffocating, that Tom found it hard to justify remaining exposed to it for much longer, even as an outsider.  That was why he sometimes felt suicidal (though he was too polite–or else too rude–to actually kill himself); the occasional wish to discontinue his existence sprang more directly from a turbulent marriage and an assortment of chronic health problems that made him wonder whether some woman he’d been insensitive to in the past had a voodoo doll of him and was lovingly skewering it with rusty pins and needles on a regular basis.

While most of Tom’s students were perfectly pleasant and polite, he sometimes saw groupthink kick in, especially when he had to lay down the law to compensate for students’ laziness or tardiness.  An English manager of his from several years ago had once said to Tom and his colleagues during a teachers’ meeting that “Korean people are little children.”  Tom had found the comment condescending at the time, but now he was starting to see what the man had meant.

Not that Tom could claim to be a bastion of maturity himself.  

One thing he found particularly offensive was the way a lot of middle-aged Korean men (called ajeosshi) behaved in public.  It was hard for Tom to determine a Korean person’s age, but he guessed that most of these shameless exhibitionists were in their fifties or sixties.  A Korean-American friend of Tom’s who’d said that a lot of Koreans were sociopaths (something Tom hadn’t noticed), when Tom asked if he meant these middle-aged louts, clarified that he was referring to a different subculture.  

“I think of each of those guys as a walking caricature,” the friend said.

The “caricatures” felt it manly to be as loud as possible when snarling into their phones on the bus or the subway, get so drunk on soju or makkgeolli that they couldn’t take a single straight step, and do things like clear their nostrils in the street or make disgusting sounds in their throats before spitting on the sidewalk or pissing against the curb to mark their territory.  They were the most repulsive people Tom had ever seen in his life.  He never saw them reveal any redeeming features.  And they all appeared as miserable as hell.

Tom feared becoming one of them, since a wise professor of his had once said, “You become what you hate.”

(An English friend of Tom’s had said when he mentioned the quote to him, “So does that mean I’ll become Margaret Thatcher?”)

As a foreigner living in Seoul, Tom was also tired of being given the evil eye almost everywhere he went–sometimes even by other foreigners!  He wondered whether he exuded too much hostility himself, or was just butt-ugly enough to turn other people’s faces to stone.

One mitigating factor, as the brilliant English philosopher wrote in his two fine books, Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, “homo rapiens” probably wouldn’t endure much longer as a species, if only because of their fatal refusal to accept themselves as animals and find harmony and balance with their fellow creatures, instead of systematically murdering them and mutating into semi-mechanical monsters in the name of “growth” and “progress.”

As far as the rest of the earth was concerned, they had the same M.O. as cancer.