Archive for the ‘friendship’ Category



October 12, 2012





O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 – Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.



My Last Roommate

September 22, 2011

The pajamas were Santa-red, a green stripe running through making them christmasy and familiar. The pants had an elastic waist, which would slip down around my hips if I didn’t make a little knot out of the excess material. They were too big, the pajamas. Yet, I wore them all the time, my favorite red flannel pajamas, pulling myself out of my teaching clothes as soon as I got home.Over the next eight years, I slowly grew to fit them, filling the outline of another girl who had owned them before me.

Lisa was my last roomate. Teaching together at the ECC Children’s Academy in Bundang, we were placed together in an apartment when she came to replace my other roomate, a conservative, intensely focused Calgarian named Diane. Diane and I had become best friends over the year we lived together, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into getting close to somebody new.

Lisa made it easy to be around her. She was a larger-than-life American, a big, fair girl who smiled her way through all the newness. Her footsteps were heavy and comforting, as were her homemade garlic mashed potatoes – a true treat for a girl like me who couldn’t cook but loved to eat.
Lisa had taught in one of the toughest school districts in the States – The Watts district in LA, and was deservedly proud of having done so. And that completed the first impression I had of her- she was a wave of soft mothering flowing through our apartment, centered by a surprising core of toughness. She was everything I had secretly admired about America – smart, curious and yet so sure of her place in the world. Ever the polite Canadian, I envied her ability to claim her space. Later, when we travelled to Bali together, I remember being impressed by how she chided the flight attendant for forgetting to bring our drinks – polite and yet firm. I would have waited another hour, hoping to be noticed.

She was with me the night I met my husband. I had taken her out to see Sinchon, my favorite Saturday night stomping grounds. We went to a bar called Woodstock, and there he was – wearing red Chuck Taylors, eyes closed, moving quietly to “All Along the Watchtower” – the Jimi Hendrix version – and owning the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a Korean male. He opened his eyes, looked and me and smiled. I was claimed.

Over the next months, I felt bad for Lisa. I was supposed to be her partner in weekend crime, her guide through all that Seoul had to offer. I was instead consumed, engulfed in the love affair that was to define my life. My love for Bong, especially in those early days, made me selfish, addicted and ecstatic. We wanted only to be together. Everyone else in our lives were collateral damage, pushed out of the way of our grand affair. Sometimes, I wish I could say to Lisa, ” Look, I married him. I didn’t sacrifice our friendship to a fling. He was the love of my lifetime.” She already understood that, though.

I remember the night everything changed. I came home, my classes finishing later than Lisa’s, to find a half-cooked pot of something still on the stove. There was no sign of Lisa, no note. Within 30 minutes, I was at a hospital. Lisa, who had been going out on weekends with other friends, had been complaining of losing her balance when she was drinking. We had laughed it off, blaming the soju. She had taken to long, tearful phone calls to her family – odd I thought for a tough lady who had taught in the Watts district. A Korean friend had introduced an accupuncturist, who she thought might help Lisa through her discomfort. Coming home after the treatment, Lisa had collapsed. The tests showed a large brain tumor, an angry golf-ball sized thing which had changed her personality and her body from solid and sure to something more vulnerable.

We teachers tried to do our best for her. We took turns at her bedside, trying to lighten the mood, waiting for her Mom to come for her. Korean hospitals, at the time, bordered on nightmarish. The technology of care was there, but family members often took on care usually done by nurses in the West, and therefore camped out in the rooms all night. There was no such thing as “quiet hours”. The doctor could barely state the facts in English, never mind having a bedside manner. The nurses, when asked a question, would giggle out of nervousness of having to talk to a foreigner, giggle as Lisa tried to understand what was happening to her.

There I was, going through the motions of being a “good friend.” The truth is, I was in the most alive stage of my life. I was in love to the point where I could smell colors and taste feelings. I was in love with myself, in love with life, and most of all, in love with the long, caramel-colored boy in my bed. I had to wrench myself from my joy to go to Lisa’s bedside. We were two sides of a coin, she and I. I would never be more alive in my life. She had begun a long leave-taking of the physical. When I said goodbye at the airport, Lisa drugged and in a wheelchair, her beautiful mother, bravely navigating her way through a foreign hell with the same calm smile I loved Lisa for, I have to confess and say I was relieved. I could turn away from death, away from the slippery reality of the unfairness of life, and turn back to the beautiful picture of myself I saw in the bones of my lover’s face.

It has been 10 years since Lisa’s death. I was still a girl then. The woman I am now wishes I had been a better friend. I remember reading a Murakami novel, called “After Dark”. The short novel was the story of two girls- one mysteriously fast asleep while the other crashed her way through the night, having one dark adventure after another. When I read the novel, Lisa had been dead several years. I recognized us.

I am now about the same size Lisa had been. When I finally let go of her pajamas, they fit me perfectly. I dress in black and make myself less of who I am, to compensate for my size. Yet, I am reminded of shopping with her. She was drawn to a fuzzy leopard-print hooded coat – something I never would dream of wearing for the attention it would draw to me. Lisa was fearless in wearing it – that weekend in the club, the silver leopard print around her face, I knew she was beautiful. She sparkled under the lights, a big, blonde, soft creature whose warmth was as clearly inviting as the coat.

I continue to learn from her, my larger-than-life American last roommate.