Sunday, December 21, 2008

All About HeeJung (Part 1): And Then We Met...

On Tuesday, December 16th, 2008, in anniversary of our 100th day together, Kim HeeJung and I were married at Seoul City Hall (Jongno Gucheong).  We then immediately went to the US Embassy to have our marriage recognized by the US.

So, who is this gal, anyway?

She is the daughter of two very Korean parents.  Kim KiHong (Mr Kim) is a "city boy" from Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city.  And Bak YeonOk (Mrs Park, not Mrs Kim...more on this later), is a "country girl" from Gunsan, a small port town on the west coast that is still home to more rice patties than high-rise apartments.  And so, within such a small country, polar opposites did still exist.  And nothing could resist the magnetically-attractive life forces that brought together two of the most remarkable people, who then, in turn, brought about the most remarkable woman in my world.

HeeJung's mother had always dreamed she would one day meet and marry a "city boy".  HeeJung also dreamed (and often prayed) that she would meet  her "Leonardo DiCaprio".  At the age of 32 (Korean -- 31 elsewhere), she was without a boyfriend, as yet untouched by any Korean mans hands, and was perhaps beginning to consider the prospect of a long, lonely life of service to her family -- father, mother and younger brother.  That's Korean culture for you.

And then we met...

But first, a (long?) note about my state at the time...

I had been living in Korea for 1 1/2 years.  In that year and a half, I had done my best to try to work in the environment of a small, private English institution (hagwon).  But, as it turned out, I am living evidence that there is a vein of sense (if not truth) to the Korean tradition that the young should respect their elders -- and not vice versa.  Another way to say this is that the young should work for the old, and not vice versa.  Case in point follows.

The events of the months immediately following the 2007 Christmas Party and leading up to my first encounter with HeeJung were as follows:
  1. Several parents pulled their students from the academy, either because their children had "graduated" (i.e. completed the year), or because they were unwilling to commit to another multi-month contract in lieu of any substantial improvement in their children's English ability.
  2. (thus) In January, enrollment was significantly lower than in 4Q 2007.
  3. (thus) In February, the woman owner withdrew her own son from the institution.  (A very bad sign.)
  4. (unrelated) In March, the woman owner's niece left the institution due to family relocation, leaving the business without an owner-related "family" member.
  5. (thus) Also in March, the woman owner decided to transition the institution over to the head teacher, a 31yr old Korean man with (apparently) no relevant leadership experience.
  6. (thus) Also in March, I expressed concern about the state of the institution to the outgoing and incoming owners, because it was now time to renew my contract for another year.  Anyone with an 8th grade level math education could calculate that bills would soon pile up faster than income unless school enrollment increased.  I said this directly to the new owner, who decided to go out and spend what little cash remained in the business account (which he showed me) on a brand new, 12-seater Hyundai minivan (aka school bus) which he opted to use for personal use while at the same time increasing (diluting?) his role as the institution's "mere" owner to "owner-bus driver".  It was at approximately this time that I "lost it".
  7. (thus) In April, with ever decreasing enrollment, I found myself teaching fewer and fewer classes, with an ever more bizarre student mix.  You see, as students began to leave, the Korean teachers would argue to the new boss that it didn't make any sense to have two separate classes, when the "best" English teacher -- me -- could easily teach all the students in one classroom.  Thus, the number of students in each of my classes returned to their original number, while at the same time the Korean teachers, who were also presumably getting paid, retreated to the outdoor patio for what amounted to extended cigarette breaks.
  8. (thus) I suggested to the owner that it was very difficult to teach such a diverse class of students, no two of whom were at the same level, using a textbook.  He gave me blank stares in response -- truly a dolt.  So, I decided, on my own, to find some way to 
  9. (thus) Also in April, I began to spend more and more of my time with my friends after work.  While this awarded me a release valve, it did nothing for my health, since the soberest 3 friends I had could have easily outdrank any Irish Olympic drinking squad.
  10. (thus) In late April and early May, I began to miss a few days of work a month.  The new owner and I became increasingly distant.
  11. (then) In June, the new owner called me into his office for some bad news -- the money was gone.  He could not pay my May salary.
  12. (thus) In July, I sobered up enough to apply for two other jobs -- one an all-adult hagwon named Pagoda, and the other the University of Incheon position, which I now hold.
  13. (thus) In late July, I presented the new owner with a request by the University to "release" me from my annual contract.  At first, he balked.  But after I submitted, in writing -- and signed, promising to work at his hagwon at half-pay (what's half of zero?) for the remainder of July and until he found a replacement teacher in August, he agreed.  He even said, "It is a much better job for you."
  14. (thus) In early August, I signed with the University of Incheon.  Coming off a 3 night celebration, I could hardly sign my name due to delirium tremens, but was, nevertheless, awarded the position.
  15. (then) For an additional three weeks, I continued the behavior of the previous 3 nights, pushing my body to nearly the point of physical breakdown.  Water and food held a distant 3rd and 4th place behind booze and cigarettes in the hierarchy of my daily intake of substances.  Not exactly a wise move for someone with my newlyfound job security, let alone my medical background.
  16. (then) School started...and everything changed.  What a difference!  Students paid attention.  Some even learned.  My lessons were relevant and well-received.  I had arrived at a crossroads.

So, I cleaned up my act (a bit).  Either unwilling to give up a well-practiced lifestyle (very likely), or succombing to the beer pressure of an ever-present herd of friends with alcoholic agendas (equally likely), I found myself out until the way (7-ish) hours of the morning with a wonderfully gay man from South Africa and a fellow midwesterner from Green Bay, Wisconsin (both fellow English teachers), drinking beer and soju with a barbecue table full of pork and side dishes.  Of course, we had no business doing what we were doing, because we had almost certainly closed down two bars, already, in a country in which bars don't (officially) ever close -- their owners simply get tired of serving the 2  (or 3, in this case) drunks who seem intent to commit suicide by alcohol poisoning when simply quitting and going home is, while more affordable, not as appealing.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves at this restaurant with our food gone, and our last few sips nearly so.  Charleton Witoobi (aka Her Majesty), excused himself.  Casey and I finished off the soju, and I retreated to the bathroom (hwah-jahng-shil) for what I hoped would be my final "release" before stumbling home to my wonderful, yet small, new apartment.  As I approached, I found the table empty.  As I started to head for the front desk to pay, I heard Casey's voice, "Hey, Jed!  Over here!"

And then we met...

Casey had been called over to the table directly behind ours by an attractive, young Korean girl.  Smiling from ear to ear, he gestured me to come over.  I looked at the girl opposite Casey and his new friend -- the one with the vacant seat next to her, and she totally ignored me.  I remember thinking, "What the hell?  Am I that unattractive...that old?".  Then I reluctantly sat down after a very brief, awkward and uncomfortable round of introductions.

Also ignoring her, I said to Casey "What's going on?", trying quite successfully to sound at once both tired and irritated.

Apparently, HeeJung picked up on my tone, and began talking very quickly in Korean.  Somewhere in her monologue, I thought I heard something like "sheeb-pahl", which is the Korean equivalent to "F**k you!", and I interruptedly said to Casey, something on the order of "Dude, let's get the F*** out of here!"  But he was clearly still interested in his new partner, who was noticeably more quiet and "respectful" (as if we deserved any respect, drunk as we were.)  So, I calmed down and watched the scene play itself out before me.  HeeJung was clearly agitated about something, yet it was impossible for either Casey or I to devise what her problem was, because neither of us understood a word of what she was saying, and she wasn't giving KyungSook (her comparatively polite friend) any opportunity to translate, which she couldn't have done anyway, because her English is about as good as my French (c'est possible?).

Then HeeJung's phone rang -- or she dialed a number, I can't remember which.  But the result was that KyungSook, Casey and I had an opportunity to try to understand what the heck was going on.  Over the next few minutes I was able to appreciate that KyungSook's English ability was minimal, that she liked Casey, and that Casey liked her, and that HeeJung was as crazy as she was disinterested in me.

Then the volume level increased -- not the three of us...HeeJung!  Who was she talking to?!?  In a fit of rage, she hung up, threw her phone in her handbag, and stormed out of the restaurant without saying goodbye.  Feeling quite relieved, I said to Casey, "Now that that's over, what now?"  He and KyungSook looked at each other, and then looked at me.  And then KyungSook said, "!  Go!"  And I was like..."You've got to be kidding me!"

I had heard about this type of thing.  Apparently, it is a custom that when a Korean girl meets someone she likes, she tends to give off all of the wrong (i.e. counter-intuitive), and often abrasive signals, and then expects you to just fly straight in the face of reason and shower her with your affection after an apparent display of the exact opposite towards you.  Of course, this being my first subjective experience, it caught me completely by surprise.  Could it be true that, in fact, she had been paying attention to me the whole time.  And so, being the good wing-man, and tapping into my nearly depleted reservoir of chivalry, I ran after her into the rain.

Exiting the building, I looked left.  No HeeJung.  I looked right.  There she was -- head down, walking at an even pace away from me towards nothing in particular.  I stopped her by stepping in front of her.  Feeling at a loss for any meaningful way to communicate with her verbally, I put on a hurt puppy dog face, and she spun around and headed back to the restaurant.  Nothing said.  No physical contact.

So, I followed her back to the table wondering, did I catch her, or did she catch me?  By allowing me to slide past her into the seat, it was the first time she had acknowledged my existence.

We ordered more beer and soju, and we more or less talked cross-corner for about a half hour or so.  Casey and I talking across the table to each other while HeeJung and KyungSook volleyed words across between us in yet another language.  Talk about traffic jams.  If our words were vehicles, then the center of the table was the Champs Elysees at 6pm on any given Friday.  But the traffic seemed to be getting to where it needed to go.  HeeJung settled into a rythm the likes of which I've seen only once or twice in my life -- truly the "Gift of Gab", and Casey and I rarely interjected or interrupted, each of us instead focusing our attentions and intentions on our respective "arm candy".

The conversation lasted until the drinks either disappeared or had their ultimate effect.  Things began to get fuzzy.  Not for me or Casey or HeeJung...for KyungSook.  After all, she weighs probably 90 pounds soaking wet.  I vaguely remember leaving the restaurant and saying goodbye to HeeJung.  I followed Casey as she carried KyungSook to a taxi, and then my phone rang.  HeeJung was crying.

Not knowing what else to do, I returned to the restaurant -- our only common point of knowledge.  There she was -- sitting on a curb, talking into her utter Englibberish.

But I understood her.  As I approached her, she saw me and stood up.  Her head dropped a few degrees.  She had tears on her cheeks.

It was now 10:30ish AM on Saturday, September 6th, 2008.  I was a long walk from home, and a very short walk to any one of a hundred or so "love" motels.

I said, "Do you want to go to a motel?"

She nodded.  And we went to the Zoom motel.

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