My first month teaching English in Korea is like a small town parade devoted to unfortunate coincidences. I get jumped by a man for walking down the street with a Korean woman, get asked to play Santa Claus during a bout of the most explosive incontinence in my life, and lose almost all my housewares in a tragicomically fierce housecleaning by some Korean ajjumas, the older married women whose tenacious attitudes toward every aspect of life rival that of traders on the floor of the NYSE. As I start a better job, moving from a private hagwon where I taught children, to a university, I hope for better things.
I spend the first week in the new residence moving in and replacing the housewares the ajjumas trashed. I party with my new colleagues, who will also be my neighbors in the weygook satek, the eight-apartment building with a cracked foundation where the university keeps its foreigners. We rename the building the Weygook Ghetto. We drink at the Kennedy Rose, a dark log-cabin bar with a statue of Marilyn Monroe, skirt a-kilter in front of the building. Often we wake the owners, asleep behind the bar, to pay our bill. I look forward to trying hapkido with Scot, and to real teaching with a new group of people. Jim and I drink together, and Hyeon Mi allows him to go out alone with us often.
I'm far from the coal mines and the fields of winter wheat that make up my home halfway 'round the world in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. I'm trading grits for kimchee, bourbon for soju, and exhilaration has replaced my earlier fears about being somewhere so new. The distance from my home is measured in so much more than miles.
At the end of the week, Scot comes to my door and asks if I want to play soccer in the parking lot. Arguing and jockeying for position regarding the rules takes approximately half the time the game itself should. Finally Dan, the head teacher, says that he's going in if we don't start. Kevin, my next door neighbor, agrees, and play begins.
I have played soccer since elementary school twice, both as goalie. I play hard, trying my best to block kicks and steal the ball, anything to get as much running in as possible. I treat the game of soccer like I did sandlot football, looking for picks and trying to get breakaways in our compact field. Elena and I guard each other. She moves well, and once, she traps me in the corner and we tussle playfully for the ball. Our legs tangle, and we fall in a pretzel of limbs. My arm bends to an unholy angle and cracks hollow at the joint as we hit the blacktop.
I hear footfalls and curses. The voices sound far off, aquatic, and I stand quickly, cradling my perversely detached lower arm with my free hand. Everyone gathers around me, and I see Anicha and Min, Jim's neighbors, approaching on foot from the road that leads to school. I move my arm, which locks halfway through its normal arc. I push through it, and Dan and Scot both tell me to stop it, that I need to see a doctor. I put the arm through the reverse motion, and it moves like a three-position, poseable toy figure.
While Anicha and Min are approaching, Chris, the former actor who lives below my new place, explains calmly that my arm is only dislocated and he needs to jerk it back into place. I object at first, but I'm entering shock, and he's convincing. He grabs my arm and yanks it, twice, and all it does is prove two things: the bones in my upper and lower left arm are no longer connected, and Chris has no earthly idea what he is doing. Another teacher asserts my need for a hospital, and saner minds prevail as I start to feel an approaching pain. Jim, Anicha, and Min offer to go with me to find an emergency room open on Sunday.
An hour later, we have examined a couple of places, and the pain in my arm starts to intensify. We settle on Munsu Pyongwan, a hospital with an iffy rep but open. Min cajoles, convinces, and asserts my way into the emergency room. The doctor on call furrows his brow and asks me what happened. Min explains. The doctor grabs my arm and clumsily twists it. "How does that feel?"
I tell him in Korean to stop it, not using the polite ending usually prevalent in such situations. I take my good hand away and rest my broken arm on my leg. A tall, curvaceous nurse wearing an old-school, blue-and-white striped nurse outfit shuffles in. She points to my backside, and I make the motion of lowering my jeans. She nods. I feel the cold swab of alcohol, and she slaps my ass. I see but do not feel the shot. I imagine that the rate of hypochondria among Korean men must be high.
They take me to the X-ray room, and place my arm, throbbing but already starting to numb, on the pad. Nurses bring me back to the emergency room, and I sit there, laughing at the doctor's earlier question with Jim and Anicha while Min argues diligently with someone at the front desk about the bill.
My X-ray comes back to the ER, and the doctor and the nurse place it onto the examination light. When they see it, they gasp audibly.
"Well," Anicha says, "that sounds like a good sign." I laugh hard, and feel giddy from the painkiller and the stress of the situation. I have broken my radius and ulna in bad places, my doctor tells me, and chipped another bone, whose existence I was to this point ignorant. School starts tomorrow, and I have no idea what I am going to do. I close my eyes as they wrap my arm for the temporary cast.
My friends take me through McDonald's on the way to the satek, and later bring me homemade fried rice. I take a handful of pills, and Kevin, the tall, genial Texan, drags mattresses into my office so I can have almost everything in the same room. I set my alarm, and put the suit away. I ask Sora, Kevin's wife, to alter a couple of sweatshirts so I can slip them over my cast. She cuts the left arm of my sweatshirts off just above the elbow, and I think absently about lesson plans.
The next day I walk into school with my casted arm slipped through a UK sweatshirt to the gasps of every class. The departmental secretaries pass out the syllabi for me. I look forward to the sympathy factor from women, but I realize quickly that instead of sympathy, something like revulsion takes the faces of most of my students and the secretaries. It's the look that most people get watching strangers throw up.
Later that day, a tall, attractive nurse attends to me in the waiting room before I see the doctor. She coos over me like I'm a wounded bird, and she places two soft, warm hands around my upper right arm to guide me to the X-ray room and then to introduce me to the doctor. Wonder Nurse—she's built like an Asian Diana Prince—speaks English well, and she laughs intermittently from the conflict between shyness, I suppose, and commitment to her duty.
My doctor is a well-spoken, friendly man who speaks English comfortably, but the man who puts on my cast handles my arm as if it's an unruly child. Wonder Nurse gasps, and says something that sounds mildly chastening to the man. I put my hand over the injured arm and try to make some sort of gesture that will request a gentler handling. He grunts, and handles my arm tenderly, exaggeratedly, like he's handling a piece of tissue paper.
The doctor tells me I will most likely never regain full use of the arm, and I can count on traumatic event arthritis in a few years. He shows me where I have broken the crown of one of my bones, and then he shows me the bigger cracks and the flotsam of the badly chipped bone.
It doesn't look like I will have to have surgery yet. If my bones move a millimeter or two farther apart, though, I'll need an operation involving rods in my elbow and ensuring a limited range of motion. The doctor tells me to immobilize the arm as much as possible, and to be very careful how I sleep. "I apologize for all the bad news. You look so sad." Speaking in a second language, I guess, isn't given to subtlety.
I receive an e-mail from my childhood friend Doug in response to the one I sent him earlier telling him about my arm. He is exactly as sympathetic as I figured he would be. He tells me: "at least you're not monogamous: you still have the other hand." Every time I speak to him, he asks when I am coming home, tells me just to let him know a time and a place to pick me up, and he'll be there. Going home is not an option now, as the doctor tells me I'll need six months of rehab on my arm, and I would have no insurance upon my arrival in the US.
My routine for the next month follows a mundane pattern. I teach, go to the doctor to have my arm X-rayed, go to the pharmacy, and then collapse on my bed, struggling to take all the allotted pills. My friends show up often as they can to mitigate. Kevin and Sora bring over their extra television. All the satek's inhabitants visit, and Jim even cleans for me. Chris brings me booze and ganja, and Kevin and Sora help me with day-to-day details, often bringing over food and staying for conversation. Scot and Elena take me grocery shopping, and we bring home a mini-keg of foreign beer, a luxury Scot sets up for me in the kitchen.
Anicha comes over most often to visit, and he often brings food that Min has made. Many nights he brings my favorite, a plate of wheat-colored, sweet thin dumplings filled with rice, toasted sesame seeds, and just a veneer of soy sauce, and we talk as I woof them down. He and I chat almost always for no less than an hour, our talks meandering through religion, culture, and politics usually punctuated by his wife's calls, wondering where he has been for so long. When Anicha leaves, I elevate my arm on the pillow and try to sleep while listening to CNN International or the BBC World Service on my computer. The food and the company are pretty much all that makes this time bearable, but both are exceptional.
I look forward to the time when I can move to a sling, and shower on a daily basis instead of putting a plastic bag over my cast, sponging myself off, and pretending it's Wonder Nurse bathing me. I sleepwalk through my classes because of the pain medicine, and though another teacher gives me a ride to work almost every day, I end most days tired to the point of feverish. After one particularly exhausting day, the ascetically frugal Kevin deposits two foreign beers at my bedside while I sleep. These weeks are a hot, tired blur, but I start to feel like I live in a community of people fast becoming unforgettable.
While I sit in the waiting room outside physical therapy the next day, I think of Donald Tuck. He taught Asian Religious Traditions at Western, and I can't remember ever making fun of his name's unfortunate rhyme. I liked him because he smoked a pipe in his office after Frankfort passed a law prohibiting any smoking inside state buildings. Students would walk slowly past his door, trying to find any reason to dawdle there. Tuck's English briar pipe, like the incense ball swung by a Coptic priest, released the spirits of Captain Black and Bluegrass Gold from his office into Cherry Hall's third floor, this illicit cloud suspended above the aisles of his congregation of sweaty underclassmen too timid or devout for the other vices Bowling Green could offer.
He was the only religion teacher we had who, at least outwardly, was not religious. We knew Nash was a Baptist; Vos, a levelheaded Presbyterian. Trafton was an Evangelical, and Veenker, who joked about keeping a bullet in his pocket to protect him from Bibles thrown by the Gideons when they visited campus, attended the high-church "Whiskeypalians." But what was Tuck? Not even the graduate students knew.
We dreaded his class. We had passing interest in other religions, but mostly as a means to an end. As Evangelicals, we wanted to know what other religions taught so that we might be better witnesses to them: to win them for Jesus we were willing to learn anything and everything so that we might be all things to all people. Fresh from the movie The Mission, my circle of friends, future pastors and Sunday School teachers aspired to nothing less than fulfilling the Jesuit mission as we saw it: go where the people of God are, and love them. We spoke in furtive hope of a time when we might love such that the response of the beloved might be less important than the process of love itself. In the meantime, we took Asian religious traditions because it was required for all religious studies majors, and Tuck was the sole professor who taught the course.
Dr. Tuck loved his subject, though I think over the years the many Southern Baptists and Evangelicals may have worn him down, regarding his teachings as viral and dangerous.
One day in class, though, Tuck taught us about Zen Master Hakuin, a well-traveled Buddhist monk who settled in a Japanese village and enjoyed renown for his virtue. One day a beautiful Japanese girl became pregnant, and she accused the Zen Master. All he said when approached with this accusation was, "Is that so?" Hakuin went about the village untroubled by the subsequent loss of his reputation and his disciples. When the baby was brought to him, he borrowed milk and food from his neighbors to feed the child, and found joy in caring for him. Later, the girl confessed that she had made the whole thing up, and that the real father was a fisherman. The family apologized and asked Hakuin's forgiveness, admitting not only their guilt but Hakuin's forgiveness. Hakuin had come to love the child, but all he said when he handed the baby back to the girl was, "Is that so?" Tuck said that this story represents perfectly the Buddhist concept of equanimity, the idea of being in perfect, unbiased balance with the universe, like a perfectly round ball bearing on a perfectly level floor.
"Rather than seeing this as indifference," he pre-empted us, hands going down all over the class. "We should see it as a state of unworried, unconditional love." I thought about the face of Hakuin that day while wandering the campus, and wondered if I would ever reach any sort of Gospel equanimity, forgiving even the men on a cross next to me with a three-word question.
I think about Tuck, that story as inseparable from him as his pipe, and the past four ill-fated months in Korea as I sit waiting for my therapy sessions to start. A petite nurse strides confidently to the desk, and calls my name. I smile, and say, "That's me."
She introduces me to Mr. Young, the main therapist. He smiles, and his glasses move down on his nose. He pushes them back up. "Hello. Nice to meet you." I'm grateful he speaks some English. "My English is very poor," he says almost immediately. He spots the Korean phrasebook in my hand and sighs audibly. "Oh, good. Can you speak Korean?" I try to say "not very well," but I butcher it. He giggles, and so do the nurses. My face turns red, but he instantly approaches me and guides me to a table. "That's O.K. Today you only need one word."
"What is that?" I sit, then recline, on the bed.
"I'm going to hook you to this machine, and if it hurts, I want you to say 'apayo.' O.K.? That means pain." He smiles wide and holds up his thumb.
I feel no trace of unbiased balance with the universe as he attaches what look like little rubber plungers to my arm, focusing on the area around my elbow. When the machine comes to life, the plungers suck my bared flesh into a seal like the end of a vacuum cleaner would. I count eight arms to this machine. It comforts me that the machine is German, even though I only understand the word that represents "stop" on the console.
He starts the machine, and it tingles. He turns the crank, and my arm starts to spasm violently, nearly coming off the bed. It feels as if I have grabbed a live, wet wire. Before I can try out my new word, he turns the juice down. My arm still spasms, but only with the force of a nap jerk, with the frequency of a rapid heartbeat. Each pulse feels a little like a shock from the carpet. Mr. Young pats me on the shoulder, and whispers in my ear, "In an hour, one of the girls will massage your arm."
"Is that so?" I manage a smile that seems to curl widely around my face.
The first month assumes balancing the dichotomy of the onerous electric shock machine, which I'm sure is curling the hair on my arms even as it leaves large, red circles on my skin, and the ecstatic relief as Miss Sung comes to assuage my pain after the Octopus Therapy Machine has had its way with me. Mr. Young tells me that her name means "police" in Korean, and then he snickers like a drunken frat boy.
I teach during the morning, go to rehab, come back to my apartment, sleep for an hour, then teach night classes. The time flies.
In mid-April, I switch from a massage after the octopus machine to curling small dumbbells that I would have chastised any of my friends for lifting. Long away from calling myself Evangelical, I still hope to God that Mr. Young is going to tell me that there will be a massage after this. He shows me the proper motion—twist the arm as you curl so that you end up touching the fist to the shoulder, a range of motion that is impossible for me now. He watches me during the first rep, and cheers me quietly.
"Yes, yes," and "oh, good, that's very good." He's gentle when he moves my arm a little farther than I can, and despite his youth, he seems to know just how far to push.
I now have geometric goals for my arm's range of motion. The most ardent effort results in moving my arm from an obtuse angle to barely a right angle. Geometry becomes relevant for the first time in my life as I pray for acute angles.
"Now, do that for one hour. I will come back." I will spend approximately 396 hours on my back in the physical rehabilitation room in Munsu Hospital over the next five months.
During the time the Electric Octopus shocks and sucks on my arm, I read my Korean phrasebook. I learn the words for God (Hana-nim), love (sarang-hye), and movie (yangwha) first. I build on that by learning how to ask a woman if she'll go to a movie with me.
During the time I manipulate the tiny dumbbells, all I can do is think, except on Tuesdays when the radio station has English song hour. When I get too loud singing the English songs, Mr. Young claps politely. I try to achieve some sort of focused leveling, incrementally moving with each twist and curl toward an angle that might lead me to some holy balance.
Spring gives me the chance to sit outside on my balcony and drink nok cha, green tea, in the morning while grading papers or reading. The strong, vaguely sesame smell of nok cha, along with the potent dose of caffeine, wakes me as I read. Because everyone I have met in Korea believes that green tea is healthy, I drink it every day, and I grow to love the taste. These mornings become among the best things about Korea.
Along with the nickname The Hermit Kingdom, Korea is called more flatteringly The Land of the Morning Calm. This Morning Calm lasts about two hours each day, between six and eight, and as the extreme volume of all things Korean starts to add to my twitchiness, I try to spend that time awake and alone. Korea suffers silently from the hangover of late, hard nights even on weekdays.
Just after the calm, as the tea is running low and the campus radio station starts to blare insanely happy music over a loudspeaker, I imagine stories for the black-haired figures skittering along the streets in miniature below me. Most days any of us venture out of the university grounds, we deal with The Look, the open-mouthed stare that we produce in the locals like we just stepped out of a pile of excrement. Here, though, above everything else in Ulsan except the observatory and the mountains, I get the chance to watch unobserved.
I reach the point in working the angles of flexibility of my arm so that I can wear my suit, the jet black, British-cut I bought in Cambridge. It's a minor victory to slip my arm in and through the sleeves of the white Oxford-cloth dress shirt, knot my sky blue tie as best I can, and pull the summer-weight material around my chest before I walk down to class, sling stuffed into the inside pocket of the jacket like a vestigial appendage.
I click and clack my way down the hill on the day of the Spring Festival, feeling smartly dressed and confident, evolved, as I pass between groups of students and workers erecting tents together. Students I don't remember from class shout from their stations to invite me for beers with them, and I make empty promises about meeting them later.
During the class break, I store my sling in the lower drawer of my desk in the office the foreign teachers share at the university, and as I do, I catch Kevin's eye.
"Well, well!" Kevin exclaims, "Look who's ambulatory! Keeping that for a souvenir?" My desk is next to Kevin's, and he hangs his work clothes on the door that is inexplicably locked at all times. Today he has already changed into a white T-shirt and jeans; his dress shirt, khakis, and tie hang on the door. I nod my head and extend my middle finger in the direction of the drawer.
"I'm now a bigamist again." I smile cheekily and hold both hands out. Kevin laughs, and he shakes my left hand despite, I imagine, the mental image.
Elena laughs. "Pervert," she coughs, while she organizes her desk, the only perfectly neat one in the room.
"Good on you." Kevin has the look and way of a global-economy Johnny Appleseed. He wears Afghan coats and hats to class on cold days, and while his curly, ashen hair is never quite mussed, it always seems to retain something of the wind-blown wildness that he's seen while trekking in the Himalayans and the Andes. He seems as happy at work most days as if he were swinging in a hammock on the beach. "Going to the festival?"
"Do I have a choice?" I try to mitigate how grumpy I sound. "I mean, I think it's coming to us, whether we want it to or not." The report of hammers hastily constructing scaffolds has created an impossible environment in which to teach or study anywhere but the office for the past day or so. Huge green tents freckle every parking lot on campus. Group cheering erupts all over campus at various points of the day, and I can't help thinking of a high school gym, yelling back and forth, "We got Spirit, how about you?" or brown shirts and book burning.
"Yeah, it's gonna get pretty loud over there. We might go out for a beer or two, though. I have class early tomorrow, so I'm going to try to escape for a night walk in the woods with Sora, then we'll come down as they start to wind down. Might do you some good to get out."
"I'm going. Come with me. Let's go out and hit some tents, cruise for chicks." Chris has been listening in. "C'mon, we haven't been out much at all since you hurt your arm." He's leaning over his partition with a handful of wrinkled papers.
"Jim, how about you?"
"Gotta read. Doing my master's." This refrain he will repeat a hundred times, either to remind me or him, I'm not exactly sure, that he's in graduate school. "You guys go, though. Let us know how your date turns out."
Elena laughs, and says, "Be careful, Jack. I hear Chris likes it rough."
By the time we finish class, drop our attendance records off at the office, and walk down the hill, the crowd has shifted primarily to the concert, so we find seats easily just outside a tent to support our randomly chosen organization. Chris weaves his way to the bar to grab two beers, and opens them with the bottle opener provided on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
"Did we pick the Italian club?" I drink the beer, although I hate the local stuff.
"Drink up, paisan." Chris lifts his beer and clinks his bottle to mine. He smiles and I look around.
"You know," he laughs while he says this, "You are among friends."
"That's the third time you've looked around, twice before you sat down, and once after. Any time you do that, it draws the attention of any guy who sees you looking, and then you're in a stare-down. Just chill, enjoy the beer."
Off on the large field to the right of the satek, the bright lights of the concert blaze pastel fury into the night, and the singer asks a question in Korean, probably something like, "Are you ready to rock, Ulsan?" The crowd roars in response. Fireworks soar overhead, screaming a path skyward, then pop, pointillist explosions of fire and ice, bursting into the night sky.
Jim and I walk to class together most days when the weather allows, and on our way we often see the skeletal remains of soju parties, arcane ouroboros around which students build a fire and sing, hold hands with their lovers, and hang out while drinking. We hear them when we sit on the balcony at night. On nights we teach, Jim and I usually eat together before class.
One place in particular becomes a habit, the best place to get Dol Sot (literally, stone pot). A mixture of rice, sautéed fresh vegetables, a barely fried egg, mystery beef, and gochujang (red pepper paste), it arrives sizzling and fragrant in a black ceramic pot. Jim almost always gets the deep-fried piece of pork the size and shape of a Dunkin' Donuts apple fritter, donkasa. Bright-green Asian spinach with a drizzle of sesame oil, white-and-yellow tendrils of soybean sprouts, roasted garlic, and three types of kimchee cover the large table. We always indulge our lust for this meal in near silence, and when we finish, conversation follows like pillow talk.
"So many things drive me nuts about Korea," Jim says. "I hate the way these guys a table away from us are wondering out loud if we like their food. I love my wife," and only the laws of physics compete for my credulity. Jim learned Korean, endured the interminable corrections and laughter of Koreans to do so, and bore the unending scorn of people around his wife's family to become her husband. When given a prostitute once at a room salon, Jim engaged her on the topic of when she would enroll in college. Jim loves his wife, and the earth revolves around the sun.
"I know you do."
Half of me thinks Jim a masochist, but that's the part of me that still thinks he's a bastard for getting me into this, and also the part of me that still believes I could have been a great doctor. The truth is he's more committed to Hyeon Mi than I have ever been to anything in my life.
That night after class, we walk home together. Students have started another of the circles of fire down below the Ghetto, and Jim and I sit on my balcony listening to them sing and drink soju. The neon facades on the street outside the university dance and chase each other like an obnoxious outdoor Christmas lawn display. Horns blast intermittently, sometimes over our conversation. We both indulge in a foreign beer, and we speculate about whether firecrackers would be over-the-top as a means of notifying the students that it's time to go home.
"How do you feel about being here now?"
"It could be worse." I try not to think of how.
"I hope you stick around."
"Me, too. We'll see."
When I'm in Korea, escape always underlies my thoughts. I stay, though. Maybe it's simple stubbornness, or the underrated food and late-night balcony conversations that keep me. Maybe it's the intensity of feeling fortified with good company somewhere so far from home for all of us. It's quite possible I just don't want to miss whatever takes place next.
Copyright © Jack Cobb 2008.