“My wallet was stolen from my classroom today.”
“You check? Drawer, bag, desk?”
“How much money?”
“About eighty thousand won and everything else: bank, visa, driver’s license, ARC cards.”
“Do you know who is taking it?”
“I had a witness. She said it was a tall boy with glasses and black hair.”
“Oh, you don’t teach any tall boys.”
“We have plenty of tall boys.”
“I don’t think you can get it back.”
“But it was between 4pm and 6pm, in my classroom, today. Can’t you ring the parents of the students who were here then?”
“I don’t think it was hagwon’s student. Maybe student’s friend. You should not bring money to the school.”
“Well, could you send out a letter to the parents or something?”
“No, we can’t do that. You shouldn’t bring your wallet to school.”
“Uh – either way, I need a new alien registration card. Do you know if Immigration is open this weekend?”
“Oh, you don’t need to go there. They come to City Hall on the first and third Friday of every month.”
“…or, it could be the second and fourth Friday of every month.”
“Uh – “
“And it could be every Saturday, not Friday. But they come to City Hall.”
“Oh. Could you find out for me? Call them?”
“Sure, sure. I call them today. Now I’m very busy. I have to go. Don’t bring money to school again. You have class time now. Ji-won’s mother called. Ji-won has no homework every day. Why is this?”
I don’t think my legs are particularly big. Certainly they’re not the spindly giraffe-like stems of some people. Like my mother says, they get me around. I prefer them to the weak, pale, slack-skinned wobbly-ankled sticks of some Korean girls, who totter down the street in tall high heels and postage-stamp miniskirts. I have to prefer them anyway, otherwise life would suck. Anyway, I run a lot. I like them.
However, my legs do not impress my Korean students.
I was standing on a chair in class, hanging up a poster, wearing those 3/4 jeans that are probably out of fashion now, if indeed they ever were in fashion. My group of nine year olds were working steadily on some bullshit assignment I’d given them to keep them quiet. One kid glanced at me and said in a tone I’ve come to know quite well, “mool tari.” And he snickered.
The others laughed. Usually I manage to ignore this; I’m used to “big nose,” “fat belly,” “red face,” “hairy arms” or “filthy stinking foreigner.” Today, something about the quality of the laughter made me angry, and also curious. I’d never heard mool tari before. A new insult! I swung on the kid.
“What did you say?” I loomed over him and shook the sellotape in his face.
He looked stricken.
“Anneyo,” he said quickly, fluttering his hand weakly.
“It wasn’t nothing. What did you say?”
“Mool tari, mool tari!” chanted the other kids, pointing and laughing.
I went to Becky, the Korean teacher who likes me because I chose her first English name.
“Ah.” she said. “Uhhh – big leg?” Great. Nothing new. I went back to the classroom and pretended it was funny.
Five minutes later Becky knocked and rushed in.
“Naohmee? Mool tari – big no. Uh – pat?”
Even better! I grabbed the kid’s head in what was supposed to be a playful way.
“Mool olgul! Your face is big! Ha ha!” and sneered as he had done. He smiled uncertainly as Becky and the other kids laughed at him. Revenge.
It was mean. Koreans are sensitive about their wide faces. I felt cruel but triumphant; I am completely fed up with the daily snarky comments about my appearance. Big nose. Hairy arms. Dark circles. A pimple. A not cute or beautiful mole. Red face. Fat.
“May I have coloured pencil?” said Becky.
Becky left, and I resumed class, thinking once again that I was not cut out to be a teacher if I couldn’t be trusted to be the adult when they act like children.
As the kid ran out at 4:50, I swatted him on the side of the head and asked him if he said those things about his Korean teachers in front of them. He looked at me blankly. Go, go, go. I said. Get out. And added silently, fathead.
Becky came back with my coloured pencils, a dictionary, and a huge grin.
“Naomi! Mool tari – fat, no. Radish!” She outlined a rectangle in the air with her index fingers. The Korean radish is ugly, large, thick, white, heavy and shapeless, like a dumpy oval brick.
I have radish legs. I should have hit him harder.
The first in an ongoing series:
Diet your point card.
Bravo your life!
Samsung life insurance
Have a good time!
Good time chance
KTF phone company
Anycall phone company
Humanism Through Digital
Samsung credit cards
KT&G and You (Korea Tomorrow and Global)
KT&G tobacco company
These are large, in some cases multinational companies. Imagine what the English is like down on street level.
Just after midnight on the eighteenth of September 1996, a taxi driving a passenger along Gangneung’s coastal highway swept its headlights over a group of people huddled on the shoulder of the road. The men wore similar clothes and identical short haircuts, which made the driver, Lee Jin-gyu, suspicious. After dropping off his passenger he returned to the area for a closer look. The men had gone but beyond, foundering on the reef of An-in beach, a dark hulk lay in the water. Lee, thinking it was either a dolphin or a submarine, called the police and in doing so sparked one of the biggest, bloodiest manhunts in the ROK since the Korean War.
The police and Army spent the next two months engaged in a massive hunt for the infiltrators, involving helicopters, dogs and tens of thousands of soldiers combing the rugged Gangwon-do mountains in a furious search for the twenty-six stranded North Koreans who were racing the sixty-five kilometers to the DMZ, and home.
On the afternoon of the discovery, submarine navigator Lee Kwang-soo was caught at a remote farmhouse. He’d become separated from the group and, believing that he’d be unknown in such a rural location, dropped in to ask for a meal. The farmer called 113, South Korea’s Report-a-Spy hotline, and Lee was captured alive and held for interrogation. Lee had had a close shave; that evening, ROK soldiers and police discovered the bodies of eleven North Koreans, mostly submarine crew members, lying in a hilltop clearing. Fallen in a row, they had been shot by the AK-47 assault rifles that are standard issue in North Korea. As the submarine team consisted of twenty-one crew members and a reconnaissance team of five, ROK officials surmised that the highly-trained spies murdered the crew to increase their own chances of survival.
By November, there were three left. Eleven more North Koreans had died in clashes with ROK soldiers as they tried to make their way home to the Fatherland. The three were still at large. On their long march north they’d killed several civilians, including strangling an off-duty ROK soldier who was gathering bush clover alone. In Inje, 49 days after the submarine was discovered, the ROK Army finally caught up with two of the spies after a report from a civilian who’d spotted them crossing a highway. The spies had traveled 100 kilometers from Gangneung; twenty kilometers from the DMZ they were killed in a clash that left three South Koreans dead and 14 wounded. The North Koreans wore ROK soldier’s uniforms, carried ROK Army guns and had a diary outlining their escape. “Killed one enemy Sept. 21. Moved south,” it said. “Punished three residents at 2.20 p.m. Oct. 8 on a hill.”
The last infiltrator, Li Chul Jin, was never found and is thought to have successfully escaped through the DMZ to North Korea, the only one of the 26 to make it home.
The captured submarine navigator, Lee Kwang-soo, initially refused to give information out of fear for his family in North Korea. Somewhat unsurprisingly, four bottles of soju provided by the interrogation team helped him to loosen up and he became chattier. He revealed that the mission’s objective had been to collect intelligence on South Korean naval and air bases near Gangneung, and was on its way home when their vessel lost engine power and became stranded, forcing the spies and crew to swim to shore. Apparently, the small team of spies had penetrated South Korea’s defenses with little difficulty. More ominously, Lee also revealed that there had been two successful reconnaissance missions to the South in the past.
The repercussions of the submarine incident were immense and fraught with emotion, setting back North/South peace talks considerably at a time when President Roh Tae-woo’s “Sunshine Policy” towards the North seemed to be making relations more amenable. Initially, North Korea’s government denied that the sub was on a spy mission; they said it had drifted into South Korean waters by mistake, suffering engine failure while on an innocent training exercise. The South Korean government, apoplectic with rage, insisted the submarine was a provocative act of war designed to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s reasons also didn’t explain why the infiltrators had well-rehearsed South Korean accents, ROK Army uniforms, weapons, and forged identification papers. Cans of Pepsi and South Korean food wrappers were apparently also found aboard the sub. Most tellingly, a written vow to Kim Jong-il, swore that they would accomplish their ‘mission’ even at the expense of their lives. Additionally, Lee declared in a later press conference:
“We were not on a training but a reconnaissance mission. The mission was to be prepared for a big war, considering the fact that [the] chief of the Maritime Unit of the Reconnaissance Bureau, a full colonel, was with us in the submarine.”
On 29 December, a North Korean official issued an official apology, expressing “deep regret” for the submarine incident. Though this was an expression of regret rather than an apology or admission of guilt, the statement went some way towards lightening tensions between North and South.
The ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, no doubt pondering how an alert taxi driver had spotted what the combined forces of South Korea’s radar, sonar, coastguard and watchmen had failed to notice, later conducted an investigation on how the North Koreans were able to infiltrate the coastline so easily. A report investigated the failures of the Army and Navy in detecting the submarine infiltration and the slow military response time. Subsequently, twenty ROK officers and soldiers were punished for “negligence of duty” and a lieutenant general and major general lost their positions. The taxi driver, however, received a hefty reward for his keen eyes and quick thinking.
On 30 December at Panmunjom, the South Korean Government returned the cremated remains of the infiltrators to North Korea. The incident had been wound up, but a lasting scar of distrust remained. In Gangneung, the abandoned submarine sits on dry land, something of an anti-Communist propaganda vehicle. It serves as a reminder to tourists and young Korean school children that their mysterious, untrustworthy neighbor to the north might even now be watching.
My boss Sally is a small, round woman with a permanently hunted expression.
Tonight at 11pm, she’s standing in my lounge wringing her hands and talking in even tones with the landlord. He’s looking unpleasant and unconsciously jerking his toes in time to the thumping bass coming from below. His toes spasm each time the singer tries to hit an especially tricky high note. And misses.
Sally pleads. The landlord, a bored, lonely, middle-aged man, crosses his arms and shakes his head. Sally turns to me, a smile stretched on her round face as it so often is when she has to deal with my bullshit complaints about hot water, failing internet, broken phones, bills in Korean I can’t decipher.
“Well, you must move out. You can be ready 11am tomorrow? Before class?”
If I pack and clean all night, I can be, and the noraebang’s stabbing bass will help me stay awake. I snarl nastily at the landlord and he throws up his hands, says “Aieego!” and leaves. He lives above me, and can’t hear the music and torturous singing from bored, lonely, middle-aged men who have gone to the noraebang every night for the past four months, from sundown to sunup. When they put down their mikes at 3am and blessed peace descends, I count myself lucky: four luxurious hours of sleep until the bulldozers and concrete drillers start up on the construction site next door.
That night I turn my speakers up as loud as they’ll go, tip them towards the ceiling, crank the bass and play music I hope he hates. I pack my clothes and clean the floor, mired until sunup in an awful cacophany. Once, someone bangs on my door screeching but I refuse to open it, clenching my teeth and wrapping plates instead. I’ve sunk so low, and it feels so good.
“This passport photo, it is not good.”
It isn’t good. I had glandular fever that day, and my eyes were glassy, my hair a wild dark nest.
“No, it’s crap,” I agree.
“Naomi,” he says, squinting at my passport. “It’s Japanese name, yes?”
“I think it’s Hebrew,” I say.
“Japanese,” he says decisively, handing it back to me. “Ah! You’re from New Zealand! Kia ora!”
His white teeth flash and I can’t help grinning back. Welcome to Bali.
The customs officer waves my pack through with a languid “nothing to declare” and we emerge into the soupy 26 degree heat to calls of “taxi, boss!”
“What did the Lonely Planet say a taxi should cost?” I hiss to Darren and fumble with large notes, trying to look experienced, suave, nonchalant: all that we’re not.
“I don’t know – no, no taxi,” he rumbles, waving away a lean, grinning man hauling our packs into his cab.
“Cheap taxi boss!”
“Kuta fifty thousand rupee!”
“Bugger this,” I say, and walk off toward the carpark. We approach a small, balding taxi driver in a short-sleeved white shirt, crouching on the kerb smoking a cigarette.
“Cheap!” he says and leaps up as we lug our bags towards him. He reaches to shake our hands. “My name is Amet. Thirty thousand rupee.”
Darren nods approvingly. “That’s cheap.”
Amet grabs our bags, promising to take us to a good backpackers’. “Very good, very cheap!” Of course it is.
Amet speeds us the thirteen kilometres into Kuta with wide sweeps of his steering wheel. I grip the door handle and lurch across the seat at every turn. After Korea, driving on the left feels suicidal, though I grew up with it at home. As we swing through the streets I can’t believe the differences between the country I’ve just left and the one in which I’ve suddenly arrived. Bali’s roads, far from being the gray, ugly concrete shit heap of a wintering Korea, are hung with soft coloured lights and lush green vegetation. They seem cosily cluttered, a jungle of glimpse and murmur. The heat spreads all around, seeping into my winter-dry skin. Soon I am relaxed, heavy-lidded and smiling as readily as the Balinese people until Amet swings across two lanes and almost takes out a motorbike.
We have no travel plans here, both of us just wanting to sit on the beach for as long as it takes to forget screaming students and the breath of morning kimchi on the subway. We ask Amet for suggestions about getting out of Kuta.
“I will drive you north to Lovina Beach,” he offers, pulling up at a set of wooden buildings half-hidden by trees and turning around to smile at us. We exchange glances.
“What’s in Lovina?”
“Traditional Bali, dolphins, good for relax, very cheap,” Amet says, patting the steering wheel. He knows the buzzwords.
“Dolphins?” I say.
“Cheap?” says Darren.
Surprisingly, it just so happens that he can take us there tomorrow, for very good price.
We go to sleep watching the geckos creep across the ceiling, thrilled to be in a place where the outside blends so seamlessly with the inside, where the fan does nothing but shift warmth around, barely stirring the heat. But who wants the chilly artifice of aircon when there are gauzy curtains, verandahs, leaves brushing the screens and windows that open onto languid air? Couldn’t afford it, anyway.
In the morning, the sun has warmed the terracotta tiles outside, and there are little oysters of gecko droppings on the floor. I quickly wash under a rusty drizzle in the turquoise tub, eying the corners of the huge, decrepit bathroom for spiders. Drying with a rough, threadbare towel, I squelch across the room, push my blindingly white feet into jandals and head outside to explore.
When it comes down to basic communication, my students manage to get around their lack of English surprisingly well. Their halting speech is peppered with idiosyncrasies and unique turns of phrase that make me forgive them their terrible grammar and vocabulary because they struggle so poetically to express themselves.
Living here myself with only the most basic knowledge of Korean, I’ve found that when you lack language, you scramble for other tools to express yourself. Communication becomes innovative and simplified, a game of words, ideas and diagrams.
In the classroom, I’ve had lessons that have degenerated into Pictionary and charades as we try to share ideas and experiences that no-one has the language for. Dictionaries make it even more obtuse. But the students have surprising success rates by themselves, even with such crap vocab. One guy calls a skirt “triangle pants.” Another describes his best friend as his “very intimate friend” which made me howl until he got offended and I had to explain, which made him even more offended.
A waterfall: “Water – down.” Barbecue: “fire machine.” An explorer: “Ship go, Korea and New Zealand and USA.” A city: “Many human live.”
From a boy in love with his new MP3 player:
Mpthree is preservation many sing. I listen study mpthree. mp3 listen is not sleepy. mpthree thank.
My long-suffering twelve year old student tells, with a wistful face, why she wishes she were younger:
Mother and father, my sister “You cute!” Mother and father, me “You not cute! Study!”
And a boy on seasons:
I like summer, because it is go swimming and ice-cream eating. I don’t like winter because winter is cold and angry. Winter’s floor is slidey. Winter discovers me snow, and I like snow, and I like winter.
I really couldn’t have said it better myself.