I’d been waiting to talk to the headmaster for over two hours at this point. Min had dropped me off with no proper instruction, in the academy’s teacher’s lounge. My luggage crumpled over in the corner next to the mini-fridge. I stared blankly at the drywall counting thumbtack holes, getting lost in how similarly it mimicked the Milky Way.
It would become something of a theme throughout my stay thus far; waiting, occupying my time with thought, wondering why I couldn’t get a straight answer. Forget the language barrier, the passive nature of a typical Korean has been the biggest hurdle, by far. I don’t consider myself all that direct to begin with, unless a pretty girl dressed in red crosses my path, but holyshit, Koreans are worse than middle school girls. It’s as if there’s an inside joke spanning the nation, but I’m just not included.
As a Yankee, hailing from a land filled with overly opinionated individuals, it’s rude to be passive. We’re constantly jousting, hustling for position, trying to prove why we’re the most right. Why everyone else is so fucking wrong, so out of fear we parade around how me I am. It pays to stand out. Here, however, a culture that praises collective obedience, it’s rude to be direct. You won’t find out about a mistake at work till weeks after the fact, or if that girl you’d been chatting up is actually into you. It’s a country ashamed to laugh, literally, they hide their mouth behind a hand.
The westerns I’ve managed to meet, 90 percent of whom teach, have assured me that’s a pretty standard work environment though. And yes, if you must know, these discussions took place while choking back Jaeger Bombs at Wolfhound’s; a local expat bar one block off the coast of Haeundae Beach. My newfound mates went on to explain that the passive disconnect at work, coupled with the unusually long hours, is one of the many reasons why Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world.
For a little perspective, it’s the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 39. Seriously, that’s how much pressure these people are under to be perfect in every facet of their lives. Let that sink in, a 10 years old commiting suicide. That’s a fucking fifth grader.
As I continued to thumb through workbooks that’d been stacked haphazardly throughout the lounge, this abandoned little hideout, the door swung open. A man in his early fifties, wearing a red knitted sweater, stood in the door frame without introducing himself. He was backlit by fluorescent tubes, which had created an eerie effect. Snagging the chair across the table from me, he looked me square in the eyes and said, in broken English, “Alex, I was looking at your picture, you’re very handsome.”
It hadn’t been the strangest first impression, in fact I relish the strange, but I was perplexed. Without much context, or a plan of action, I smiled uncomfortably and went on about the book I’d been glossing over. It was a vocabulary book, it wasn’t as if it were the latest NatGeo. Despite my conversational Jiu Jitsu ability, there’s not much to deflect with after a middle aged man has seemingly come onto you.
Before I had the chance to formulate a proper rebuttal, he went on to welcome me to the academy. It was then that I realized, not only did he just execute a perfectly timed power move, he was my boss; the headmaster. I’d been waiting so long to speak with him, but as soon as he introduced himself, he was gone; just like my interest in keeping the conversation going.
It’s been a solid month since that encounter, not only do I still not know his name, we haven’t exchanged much more than a glance, or a hello, in that time. Maybe the experience had been as awkward for him, as it was for me, like some regrettable office romance. So long as it doesn’t make him the Clinton to my Lewinsky, I think I’ll survive.
***Sidenote; it’s a cultural norm to comment on someone’s looks directly. Even telling someone they’re ugly, to their ugly ass face, is a perfectly acceptable opener***
I was back to sitting alone, replaying that incredibly odd exchange over and over, wondering if they’d have Wifi at the room Min just booked me for the week. A moment earlier, he’d casually come into the teacher’s lounge and thrown a print out onto the table. It detailed the instructions on how to check in: the name of the hotel, who to call if I got lost, and the nearest subway stop; mind you, it was all in Korean and it was a certainty I’d get lost.
Slinging my backpack over my shoulder, I clutched the map that directed me to the subway station, as if it were the only map to heaven. I thought to myself, “I’ll be damned if I lose this 8.5 by 11 life line.” It was the one thing not only connecting me to my room, but to Min, incase of an issue with the concierge. I was feeling vulnerable. It was the first time in my adult life I wouldn’t be able to consult my cell phone for guidance; that glowing little pacifier.
Thirty minutes later, after hopping of the number two line, I was staring desperately at that piece of paper, trying to match the Korean characters to the buildings closing in on me. I was spinning, cutting through back alleys, going further down the rabbit hole. I was utterly lost, and still, I’d never felt that way bushwacking the backcountry of Colorado. The claustrophobia that I felt creeping up my spine was the welcomed aliveness I’d been craving; I’d arrived, I’d really arrived, and I was so damn lost. I was just glad it was in the literal sense, not the existential; I’m sure that’d come later.
Walking past the same parking lot, roughly three times now, a man flagged me down from behind the bars in his attendant’s booth. In perfect English, he asked, “you’re an American right? You look pretty lost.” I laughed in acknowledgment. He motioned for the paper I was holding, so I slipped it through the rusted out bars.
As he started to scan it, his brow furrowed. Immediately, my mind rushed to the thought that I’d gotten off at the wrong subway stop. Without breaking his gaze from the paper, he said “I’m Kevin by the way, I used to live in the US. Why on earth would you come here, America is great.” A grin smeared across his chin, exposing a gnarled smile. His stained teeth, from decades of smoking, crossed over one another as he waited for my reply.
In that moment, I didn’t have a proper response as to why I’m here, nor do I think I ever will. I just shrugged my shoulders and said “I don’t really know man, I just wanna do some cool shit before I don’t have the drive to. I’d seen the direction some of my friends had taken and I wanted to get as far from normal as I could. It isn’t that I think a 9 to 5 is bad, I just couldn’t do it. I’ve never been all that great at fitting into it a box, I guess.”
With knowing acknowledgment, he nodded. “I couldn’t really tell you the last time I’ve had a genuine conversation with my son, he’s so focused on work. Money, money, and more money. Korea used to be really poor, you know, but now we’re just obsessed with status. I wish he’d take some time to get out of here, go see the world, but you can’t give anyone advice; you can only work on yourself.”
The connection I felt to this man, working some random parking lot, on some random street, on some shot in the dark night in Busan, blew me away. He’d even been to Cleveland; the serendipity of the moment was astounding. That’s how it always goes though, no matter where you are, you’re always connected: the earth, the people, the energy. You’re never without it, it’s just our responsibility to pay close enough attention that we can catch one of those cosmic winks every now and again.
Throwing his thumb over his shoulder, he said that the WA Hotel, which I quickly recognized as my initials in reverse, is just behind us. He handed back the piece of paper and told me to have a good night. I was speechless.
I’d never met the man, but on the same hand I knew him, and if I went back he’d probably be gone. Like some apparition in the night. You see, I don’t think we really die, our energy simply spills over when our cup breaks. Everything is cyclical: fear, life, love. Even if this is just some bullshit I use to give meaning to the undefinable, I still felt it. No matter how weird things have gotten, I’ve always felt that someone’s looking after me. It isn’t luck per-say, but these moments give clarity to your path, a spiritual karin keeping you on the trail.