The position of the legal English tutor guarantees a sort of freedom that is rarely seen in Korea—the freedom to see how different families live. As teachers in public schools or hagwons we meet and yell at droves of Korean children, guessing the socioeconomic class of each individual by the amount of time we spend yelling at him, or her, as richer kids have been disciplined by years of round-the-clock schooling while their poorer peers are so free and so wild and so far behind everyone else that they have almost no hope of ever catching up.
Low maintenance kids have mothers, aunts, and perhaps even fathers, to take care of them; high maintenance kids have little beyond their teachers at school.
We can also guess how their families live by their clothes, as well: a student who changes his or her wardrobe more than once a week has parents who are not always busy. Back when I worked in Sasang as a public school teacher, or Entertainment Monkey, I noticed that about three-quarters of the students never appeared to change or wash their clothes, stains being the gifts that kept on giving.
But in knocking up a Korean woman, getting hitched to her, and acquiring a more useful visa, the F-2, a rough equivalent of the green card which allows me to seek as much employment as I like, I gained the opportunity to explore the country beyond the typical confines of the classroom, the street, the subway. I found myself inside an office tower and any number of wealthy apartments, and over the months as I’ve passed through home after home I’ve discovered a number of patterns which may help to answer the question of just what the hell is going on inside people’s living spaces?
The first, and most obvious thing, is that almost every rich family fits their living room with an expensive-looking analog clock, usually with Konglish or even Kongcais or Kongtaliano plastered to the face in light pink or light blue Italics. This clock rarely hangs on the wall by itself but always sort of veers off from the side of a wall or a giant glass bureau (containing dusty, amber bottles of fancy-looking foreign liquors which have never been touched) on two very small metal pieces, or little arching girders. I don’t know what to call them. Most importantly, the clock is always set five or ten minutes fast, a fact which ensures that I never quite know what time it is unless I check my phone—furtively and under the table, lest my students discover sure proof of my boredom, the fact that I’m taking them for granted even as their parents are paying me astronomical sums of money.
The apartments are almost always completely unfurnished save for a giant leather couch and a giant flatscreen television mounted to the wall, in addition to bookshelves stocked with hundreds, yes, hundreds of textbooks and comic books. I cannot remember seeing an actual novel or a work of hard nonfiction anywhere.
Everything is plain, bare, blank, and people live without the joy of carpets because they believe that such examples of western decadence are far too difficult to clean, though there is sure to be a Korean map of oolee nala (our country) which includes North Korea and perhaps even a hint of the millions of Joseon-jok Koreans living up in Northern China. There may be one or two nice traditional paintings. Buddhist families will probably have a theme calendar hanging around (featuring bald children in monk’s robes, a phenomenon commonplace in Southeast Asia but nearly nonexistent in Korea) while Christian families won’t have anything at all, not even one measly crucifix, not one tortured Christ, because (I believe) most of them are Protestants, who find religious art pharisaical, so far as I know.
There will always be expensive-looking family portraits. Every time. Now you know why there are so many photo studios around; a family is incomplete without its poorly-shot, poorly-composed, uncomfortable and annoyed family portrait, including plenty of gloss, skin-whitening tones, and all blemishes photoshopped into nonexistence. The family gets extra points if dressed in uncomfortable, difficult, and gaudily-colored hanbok, which surely meant that everyone involved was yelling at everyone else for an hour or two up until the very moment the picture was taken.
The view out the windows, if there are windows, is always of other apartments.
The most amazing things they possess are dishwashers and driers, two very basic appliances that I have gone without for a stunning two-and-a-half years, wailing and crying myself to sleep every night specifically because of the terrible absence of such amazing conveniences.
But I’ve encountered one wealthy family which has attempted to go beyond the typical spartan Korean lifestyles. As you walk into the first family’s apartment you are greeted by an enormous sort of stainglass painting of Napoleon raising his pointer finger up to the sky on a rearing horse, though you might not notice it because the lights are off. Walking through their apartment, and judging everything in sight, you encounter numerous similar instances of gaudy bourgeois nouveaux-riche materialism, wherein the mother (who else but the mother?) ran around on one or two internet shopping sprees and bought up everything she could find that stank of money, prestige, and status. Flashy rocks are prevalent in addition to gold, silver, brass, all of which is worked into swans and horses—poorly, in a way that will have future archeologists shaking their heads and remarking that such ancient examples of philistinism are more valuable melted down, too mediocre even for a kitsch museum.
The lights are always off here, and the heating is rarely on, because they’ve already broken the bank in getting the place and they can’t stretch their credit cards any further to pay for such luxuries as heat and light. The lights will also always be harsh and fluorescent because Koreans do not appear to be aware of the existence of lights that are not physically painful to live with.
Most of the kids and most of the people I’ve encountered appear to be relatively happy despite leading lives that would strike many Americans as being famished of—what else can I call it?—fun. Children study, parents work, and neither party ever stops. I once saw the mysteriously gigantic father of a pair of wonderful twins stagger in from what must have been a very long day, wave at me and smile with a face that looked half-mummified, and then vanish into his dark bedroom. He runs a taekwondo hagwon. I was with my own father at the time (visiting from America), and the exhausted father didn’t appear to care that there was a new strange foreigner sitting in his living room. But I think, except for him, I haven’t met any other fathers; it’s the mothers who take care of kids here, and every last one of them looks strained and overworked; the whitening cream with which they’ve been slathering their faces for decade after decade also leaves them prematurely gaunt. The children rob them of their beauty.
One of them had been taking care of her baby son for almost two years nearly completely by herself, and it showed; she was in her early thirties, but she could have passed for twice that age, living in a packed neighborhood that is utterly destitute of open space, or even sidewalks. Last time I was at her place I heard her screaming at her son for twenty minutes, suggesting that the woman could really use a week on the beach—away from her toddler, away from the cesspool that is western Busan. Sometimes I see her young husband helping her out, but she’s always with the baby, and her man never seems to take over completely by himself. If you walk about the more liberal eastern areas of the city you may see some men taking care of young children, but you will almost never see them doing so by themselves.
All of the families I work for are rich, and all of them seem to work constantly, but I misjudged one family when I assumed their life was completely meaningless, passing by in an uninterrupted blur of classrooms and offices. In this family’s case, the father actually lives and works in Seoul, and comes back to visit his wife and kids on the weekends; these kids study, read comic books of amazingly dull quality, play on their cellphones, and go to church on Sundays. So I thought they didn’t have much going for them aside from their ignorance of the fact that kids in America lead much easier lives (though one girl, our best and brightest student, from the womb of the Napoleonic mother, told me she wanted to go to America so she wouldn’t have to study all the time).
But in the last three months this family has traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, and I think even Indonesia, feats which are not at all unimpressive, considering the fact that they hauled their kids along with them for the ride and voyaged out of the country with only the barest understanding of English. Other families have traveled all over the place. The Bonapartes are currently in the Philippines to pick up the younger daughter, who has been studying there for six months. The son of a woman who owns a brand name clothing store has been to like twenty goddamn countries, and he’s still in elementary school. It’s kind of amazing, and this level of travel, this level of exposure to strange foreign cultures, must be exceedingly rare for most children on Earth; I didn’t leave North America until I was in college. I think most of the English teachers assume, quite fairly, that Koreans know almost nothing about the outside world, but even in the poorest public schools and hagwons there are a few rich ones lurking about—probably quietly—who have visited more countries than even the most adventurous among us.