I climb out of the subway into the whirling afternoon wind, look up and down the roaring street for the address, and of course it’s nowhere in sight, things are never where they’re supposed to be, so I’ve got to hustle—and then there’s the thrill, the sudden thrill of this odd new life of hunting down English students and teaching the shit out of them.
These people are paying through the teeth, they’ve got monetary ebola, they’re bleeding cash out their anuses, they’re financially disemboweling themselves, they’re shitting green Lincoln-faced bricks, because they want me to stand at the head of a table and talk to them. And they know next to nothing about me, how it will be a miracle if a single student learns a single word from my slobbering lips: the Pope will beatify me, people everywhere will devour mountainous platters of kimchi on my feast day, English teachers in Korea will pray to me as their patron saint, if even one word worms its way inside the minds of my students.
So I’ve got to figure out where I’m going.
My heels are clicking and clopping on the sidewalks of the port area in the southwestern part of the city, where enormous cranes rise out of the coasts of curving peninsulas everywhere you look, stretching away into the mist and the ocean. Busan fraughts itself with ships. The blue sea blasts the air, but there are no trees to shake, just tall rectangles of concrete faced with fake bricks and darkened one-way windows. One of them is my building. Salarymen and women are flying in and out of the spinning brass doors, each of them dressed as blandly as possible, and a tuft of my bushy black chest hair is poking out of my radiant pink polo shirt, stained with deepening blotches of sweat.
The conference rooms I find are swank imitations of true style: anything up on this lofty floor that seems elegant is probably made of cardboard, but the windows look out on the bay, and the vast ships checkered with hundreds of varicolored cargo containers, each little box the size of a house. We turn on the air conditioning, but of course Koreans are afraid of air conditioning, so someone opens a window, which means we should just turn the air conditioning off.
The sunset makes everything red before the city fades. The students filter in. About nine fairly awkward thirtysomething corporate slaves, and a single pretty woman in an airy lilac business casual blouse, say hello as they take their seats around a u-shaped conference table. The man who hired me explains everything to them in Korean for about half an hour: he is possibly the sharpest and most charismatic Korean I have ever seen, without even the slightest trace of the pompous, syrupy sleaze that typically oozes out of the pores of anyone in this country who thinks he or she is attractive. He’s kind, trim, well-spoken, polite, and when I look at him I want to wear a nice suit.
And everyone takes this meeting so seriously! They’re so good at pretending that any of this matters! If one is to succeed in the corporate world, one must exude the gravity and significance of eagles perched on mountain aeries, even if one is actually bored to tears, with the soul beating about the bars of one’s ribcage as if thrown into a zoo, desperate to leap out the window and soar over the vast cranes and ships gliding across the blue bay.
I do not know where the time goes. We talk. We converse. Ninety minutes of such strain! How can any of them take this seriously! What prevents them from roaring with laughter at my ridiculousness and walking out? Will they get fired if they don’t show up? Don’t they know that I am actually, in fact, an incompetent loser? Isn’t it obvious? The pictures I show them from my life seem to bore them, and as I blab on and on about this or that all I can think of is how few of them must understand me.
The men seem so easy to read. The best speaker is so nervous, scratching his arms, his nose, fingering his pen, forcing his hands together, swaying back and forth, with drips of sweat beading down his forehead—still, no one can speak like him, no one is so articulate. Another freezes midspeech for thirty or forty unbearably long seconds and then gives up. His thoughts must have been racing over how he couldn’t think of anything to say, even as I was gazing into him with the wide-eyed face of a teacher who is desperately trying to draw something, anything, out of his student. Come on! Come on! You can do it! Make a word! Say anything! It doesn’t even matter! But he gives up, apologizes, sits down, looks glum.
I choose him at random to give a short speech in the next class: the burst of rage, sadness, and misery that contorts his face, that microexpression of such agony, makes me pity him even more. I wish I could have randomly chosen someone else…his life seems difficult enough, how he must have slaved and slaved to get this job, and now this…
But after we practice a single phrase we’re done, we go. I walk out into the night. People speak nasally, bouncy Russian, homeless men sprawl themselves out into crowds holding empty baseball caps, women wear clothes that leave little to the imagination, I ask a silver-haired Korean vendor with a handsome wolf’s face where his chestnuts are because he’s selling sunglasses now, my wife swears on the other end of the phone when she hears this (“god damnit! sheet!”), and when I ride the subway home I stand near a group of Chinese students whose speech sounds like god knows what, a slurred river of sibilants—darting home, caterwauling through the dark tunnels, with Cortez battling his way across Tlascala in my lap.