When I first set foot on Korea all those many months ago I didn’t really expect to meet an orangutan, a Viking, William Shatner, a hipster from Williamsburg, Turkmenistani dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, a Parisian mime, a Sicilian farmer, or any such like; indeed the idea of meeting these estimables was so far from my mind I did not even consider it; instead, I expected to be greeted at the airport by Koreans, or to be abandoned entirely without the plucky resourcefulness I now possess—today I would get out of the airport, find a hotel, and look for jobs on the internet if I were abandoned by my employers, while at the time I think I would have simply panicked.
Anyway, out of all those odd possibilities, I met the oddest—an exceedingly tall hipster from Williamsburg who greeted me, and revealed to me on the drive over the gray torrents of the Nakdong River, and beneath the immensity of Busan’s great green mountains, shrouded in the darkest soot-colored rainfall that Charles Dickens could ever conceive of, that he had abandoned his post as a result of the tyranny of both his coworkers and his students; he had a disturbing way of slicking his long greasy hair back and huffing and hehhing and sighing after every comma’d clause of his faint, mumbled exasperations; he was not what you might call bona fide.
We approached the school, where I was going to meet my coworkers after about a day of airplanes and airports, after witnessing the acne and the hairdye of Chinese teenagers and the golden dragonflies that swarm above the tarmacs of Shanghai; I beheld at once the most run-down, miserable cluster of cement buildings you could imagine, the city’s hunger for filth slaked, viciously slaked, with every manner of pollution imaginable.
The rotten cabbage stench of Korea was so overpowering, even in our air-conditioned car, that my eyes were watering.
We slowed down and stopped but I found myself unconsciously pushing my legs down against the floor, strained, wondering what I’d gotten myself into now—some disastrous cataclysms I’d experienced in Bali had taught me to go where I please and strike where I please without any expectations, but here was the wreckage and the refuse of a nightmare, my place of employment for a year, and I desperately wanted them to keep going, even as they were stopping the car and getting out and going inside and gesturing for me to come along.
My first real job—travel—adventure—challenging myself—fleeing the destiny of kitchens or dining rooms that awaits so many of those who choose to study books—reinvigorating my poetic forge, decimated, smothered, and confused by the upheaval of finishing college—doing something different, distinguished, eminent, noble—all these great hopes and desires collapsed into an absurd joke like a wave of splashing, foaming bathos as I was led into the teachers’ room and presented to the tall-as-a-tree, triceratops-crested vice principal, who proceeded to deliver a lengthy speech to me in Korean about god knows what, with no one in the room offering to translate. I did catch one English phrase, “handsome boy”, and that was the end of that.
Everything else was so awkward. I realized that all the teachers in that pale, linoleum room despised the departing foreigner because he had quit only four months into his year-long contract; the cold meeting with my future Korean co-teacher established why, as my first impression of this woman turned out to be totally correct—she did not smile when she first met me, and that says it all. I must be careful not to rant too much about her; but since coming to Busan I have been on the brink of walking away from my job—in this economy?—as a result of the rotting away of all human dignity that occurs when you must inhabit the same building as this creature.
In some ways I can’t blame the hipster for cutting and running, which is exactly what he did the next day, flying out and only telling me so when he found time to send me an idiotic email from Cleveland, which was, yes, full of his signature hehs. He was supposed to stay for a week and help me get adjusted to Busan; instead I was left to my own very shy and very hesitant devices.