March 1, 1997
Namsan Tower hung in a perfectly framed window, the centerpiece in a gallery, where the frames on either side offered snapshots of the surrounding sights of Seoul, South Korea. The tower was perfectly composed, just off-centre, clearly observing the rule of thirds that make for a good photograph. The sky was a peachy pink and orange that provided a unique cast to the background, the colour offering evidence of a smog-induced sunset. The wisps of cloud, far away, were brushed in purple. It was a lovely row of images.
But this was not an art gallery. In my sleep-deprived state, I saw these frames as frozen images, as snapshots, though in truth they didn’t last long. As my eyes moved from frame to frame, the subjects moved or disappeared altogether. I was, in fact, looking across the aisle and toward the starboard side of the airplane that was taking me across the city on its final approach to Kimp’o International Airport. The setting sun lit Namsan Tower on its hilltop peak. It was, for me, the symbol of the 1988 Olympics, which, in turn, was a reminder of Canada’s shining moment and greatest embarrassment, the fastest runner in the world, the great doping cheat. But here and now, looking at the tower made me feel that I was not only in an alien country, but in an alien world, one with an atmosphere completely different from my own, illustrated by its fiery sky. Breathing in this atmosphere would be tantamount to breathing in flames, to inhaling toxic fumes: certainly, there was something lethal out there.
How am I going to adapt and survive in this new environment?
Looking out my side of the plane, I was blinded by the sun’s peachy glow. As the plane prepared to land, so too did the sun seem to be on its final approach to Earth for the day. Directly below, streets emitted vibrant colours of their own: neon pink, red, green, yellow, and bluecolours that ran endlessly along the labyrinth of alleyways and avenues that made up Seoul, South Korea. And after more than twelve calm hours between here and Vancouver, my anxiety was finally getting the better of me.
What if I don’t like it here? What if the people don’t like me? What if I can’t communicate with anybody? What if I can’t bear the food? What if they discover me for the fraud that I am?
Too late to worry about these things now.
Within a few moments I would be touching down in the Land of the Morning Calm, a world so different from my own that every day promised to bring something new.
You wanted a change in life, Roland, to start over again. And now you’ve found it. Here’s your fresh start. Deal with it.
It was Saturday, March 1st, 1997, and my life was about to change forever. Again.
As we sank lower, as the earth reached up to catch us, the cityscape changed to farm fields. The surface was a dirty, dry brown. Far away, in Ottawa, where my journey had begun, its residents were still slumbering under a blanket of snow. Looking over this landscape, there was absolutely no evidence that it had snowed at all, though I knew that snow, though uncommon, was possible in this country. I had seen wintery pictures of Korea in travel brochures and guide books; I had studied as many of them as I could before leaving home. But where, when, and how much it snowed, I had no idea. From above, it looked as though winter was finished, that the land was preparing for spring’s arrival. For this country, as it was for me, it was truly a time of renewal.
As the plane prepared to land, I could see a row of orange and white helicopters sitting idly outside small hangers containing who-knows-what, and before I could think of what, the Korean Air 747 hit the runway with a solid thump. Looking out the opposite window again, I could see the airport terminal buildings and the rows of airliners parked at their assigned gates, like newborn creatures suckling at their mother’s teats. Our plane left the landing strip and headed for its expectant gate. The flight attendant for my section unclipped herself from her seat and prepared for our exit. She was young and quite beautiful; indeed, all of our female flight attendants were lovely. Slender, hair expertly coiffed, and makeup applied to perfection. Perhaps that was a job requirement. Quite the opposite of most Air Canada attendants, whose appearances seemed to have been spared for skills in saving lives, should the situation ever call for such needs. More’s the pity that none of the Korean attendants smiled. They seemed so serious, although that’s what their job was about: being serious. After all, were they not only responsible for our comfort, but for our safety as well? The other question that came to mind was one to which I couldn’t answer: were they also serious because of their Korean demeanour? Were all Koreans this serious? How was I expected to behave? None of the brochures or guide books really helped me in this matter.
I looked around the aircraft and noticed that many of the passengers had already removed their seatbelts; others were out in the aisles, collecting their belongings from the overhead compartments, oblivious to the fact that the seatbelt warning light was still displayingand I could have sworn I heard an announcement asking passengers to remain seated until the plane came to a complete stop. Maybe the Koreans didn’t think this rule was necessary. I saw a few other Westerners, who, like me, were still strapped to their seats, watching the Koreans with the same bewildered look that I imagined I had. We were all in store for a lesson in cultural differences.
Getting through Customs and Immigration was quick and painless. Because there were so many Koreans and so few foreigners on our flight, the line for newcomers like me was short and it took only a few minutes to get through. The officer saw my E-2 visaa basic instructor work permitstamped my passport, and instructed me that I had ninety days to get an immigration card. He passed me a slip of paper with the address and phone number of the nearest immigration office to where I would be living. Ninety days. That was one quarter of my contract period, but only half of the time a Canadian was allowed to stay in Korea as a visitor. Even the Americans were only allowed to stay for ninety days on a tourist visa. I don’t know why I thought about this rule at this particular moment. Perhaps it was a bit of my nationalistic pride coming out: Canadians are welcome in Korea for longer than Americans are; twice as long, apparently.
I collected all of my belongings: a large suitcase and a sixty-litre backpack, each weighing precisely thirty-two kilosthe maximum allowance; a carry-on suitcase, packed to bursting; and my camera bag. Thus laden, I headed to the massive pileup through customs declaration. To my surprise, one of the officers was ushering the foreigners ahead, past the crowd of Koreans. No point in delaying a Westerner who was coming with nothing but the tools to teach.
Again the anxiety came, but this time it wasn't over the fear of being in Korea. I had made it to Seoul; that was the easy part. Now all I had to do was to get to Chŏnju, my ultimate destination. I had already spoken to one of the women who was working at my institute, another Canadian who was also from the Ottawa area, and she told me she would meet me at Kimp’o, would get me to Chŏnju. It was a kind gesture, especially when I learned it was a three-hour bus ride to Seoul. I only hoped that in the confusion of the airport, we would actually meet.
I exchanged one-thousand Canadian dollars and got a little more than six-hundred-and-fifty-thousand won. No telling yet how far that would get me. My liaison in Ottawa had told me to pack light, that things were inexpensive in Korea, but I hadn’t listened to her. She was Korean-Canadian and would have no problem shopping in her home country. I, on the other hand, didn’t speak the language, nor did I know my way around the country; I could foresee all kinds of problems in taking her advice. It was better to take as many essentials as possible. Also, it was going to be another month before I would see my first paycheque and another three months before I received compensation for my airfarethe cost of which, according to my contract, was to be paid by my employer. Though I felt I had brought enough cash, it would be best to conserve funds for the time being. At least until I could access cash from home.
I hauled my belongings through the sliding glass doors that led out of the customs area and was met by a swarm of people, all waiting to greet the latest arrivals. My eyes scanned the unfamiliar faces: some holding cards, others waving frantically to get someone’s attention, and I looked for anyone resembling a Canadian woman. The woman from my institute, Linda Bryce, said there would probably be few foreigners waiting in the arrivals area, so she should be easy to spot. She wasn’t wrong.
There were only three non-Koreans, or more to the point, three white people, that I could see: one was a man, another was a middle-aged woman who was almost immediately met by an American soldier, and the third was a woman in her mid-twenties who was holding a name card that was beckoning Rolland Axem. She was quite large, her rotundness seemingly magnified with a simple flower-patterned dress that hung off her round shoulders like a tent. She had shoulder-length black hair and her skin was a shade of pale that displayed a strong need for a does of sunshine, and she stood out from the smaller, darker-skinned people crowded about her. Even though it was still technically winter and she probably hadn’t had much time to bask in the sun, her paleness seemed unnatural.
Be nice, Roland, this is someone you need right now...
I walked straight up to her. “You must be Linda.”
“Nice to finally meet you face-to-face,” she said, her voice much harsher and louder in person than over the phone. “I hope I spelled your name right,” she added, waving the name card.
“Close. It’s actually Roland, with one L, and Axam, with two A’s, no E.”
Linda gave me a smile out of the corner of her mouth, looking at me sideways and with her eyes to one side. “I never noticed your accent over the phone. It’s a lot stronger now. You’re Scottish, aren’t you?”
“Guilty as charged,” I admitted, “A Scots-Canadian. I tend to dummy down my accent from time to time and, if need be, I can lose it altogether. I thought that because I was applying for an English-language teaching position, I wouldn’t muddy my chances by being hard to understand, especially over the phone. I plan to speak Canadian-English to my students but will let my true tongue go on my own time.”
“That’s pretty cool. I’m sure it will come in handy with your students. Personally, I like your accent.” Her smile seemed playful, but perhaps she was just being friendly. “Anyway, sorry about the spelling of your name. I wasn’t sure about your last name, but I did think there was only one L in Roland. This is how Mr. Kwon spelled your name and I thought he knew something I didn’t. I should have known better.”
Mr. Kwon Tae-ha was our boss, the owner and president of our English hagwon, or private institute. He should have known how to spell my name. I had sent him my résumé twice: he lost the first one. From what he told me over the phone, he wore many hats: English-language institute owner, trading company owner, building contractor, and he was even considering running for a regional political office. All that and a family too. He certainly had his hands full. I couldn't blame him for misplacing one résumé, nor could I fault him for a simple spelling error. English was not his first language, after all, and my name was not a common one. No harm done
Linda looked at her watch. “It’s almost eight,” she said. “We’d better get going to the shuttle bus. The last one leaves soon and it’s too expensive to take a taxi to the express bus terminal.” We would have had plenty of time, had my plane arrived on schedule, but it landed almost a half an hour late and it took another twenty minutes to reach our gate. It was a good thing I was swept through customs and immigration. “Can I carry anything?” she asked.
My backpack was strapped in place, my carry-on bag was secured to its matching suitcase, which was on wheels. I handed her my camera bag. “Thanks,” I said, “If you take this, I’ll be better balanced for wheeling my bags.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, and took the handles of my suitcases from me. “You must be tired after your flight. What was it, eighteen hours?”
“Nineteen, with the transfer in Tokyo, but who’s counting?”
She wheeled by luggage toward the exit and I followed. For now, I’d allow this co-worker to be my guardian angel.
The fatigue of my journey hit me as we worked our way from Kimp’o to Seoul. As we sped along the Olympic Expressway, following the south shore of the Han River, I gazed out at the hypnotic traffic lights and neon signs. It was dark now and I was disoriented. All that I knew about the layout of Seoul was from a map I had studied back home, the one I had acquired from the Korea National Tourism Organization office in Toronto. I knew where the National Assembly building was, where Namsan Tower was, and most importantly, where the Canadian and British embassies were (if one wouldn’t take me, the other would). I knew there were four or five bus stations in the city but I didn't know which one we were heading to. I felt both physically and mentally lost. My head was trying to cope with the lack of sleep and all of the new information flooding my senses. I had so many questions to ask, so many things I needed to know about what I was getting myself into, but I couldn’t organize my thoughts into sentences.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, Linda propped my bags against some benches and told me to sit while she got our tickets. By the time my wallet was out, she was already gone. I remained standing. I’d been sitting on a plane since Vancouver and felt the need to stand. I looked around the terminal. It was a Saturday night and the place was bustling like a popular night club, packed with people out for a good time. Everyone walked with great purpose, the majority of them stone-faced, scurrying to their respective buses or out into the city streets. I was acutely aware that I was the only non-Korean in sight. Many people stared at me as they passed by, not once taking their eyes off me or looking away as my eyes met theirs, as though I were a green, scaly beast.
What did these people think of me, a foreigner in their country? Was I welcome?
I suddenly thought of Canada and the news coverage of the people arriving from Somalia and other war-torn countries in the early nineties, and how people handled their arrival. Some welcomed the newcomers while others didn’t. I wasn't arriving in Korea as a refugee: I was merely a foreigner who was going to be taking a Korean citizen’s job away from him or her. But was I really taking away an English-language job from any native Korean? Wasn’t I more qualified to teach spoken English? As I became more self-conscious that I was alone, that all eyes were on me, I felt increasingly vulnerable and wondered when Linda would return.
I decided that I would return the stares by watching those who passed by. I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women who passed by were gorgeous, their faces perfectly applied with makeup, their hair flawlessly styled, just as the Korean flight attendants had been. It seemed that black was the clothing colour of choice and that mini shirts were in, even at this time of year. True, this wasn’t February in Ottawa, but at ten degrees Celsius it was too cold to expose so much skin. Still, looking at all of this exposed flesh, I wasn’t about to start complaining.
So much for my thought that Korea was a conservative country.
Linda returned and distracted me from my girl watching, her size and appearance a stark contrast to the pixies, lightly flittering about the terminal. “Bad news,” she said, looking somewhat distraught, “we seem to have come at a particularly busy time for buses going to Chŏnju, of all places. They’re booked solid. The earliest bus I could find was their top-end express bus, but it doesn’t leave until eleven-twenty. That gives us almost three hours to wait. I’m really sorry.”
Three hours in Seoul on a Saturday night. That didn’t sound too bad. My mind had pretty much turned to mush but I was running on adrenaline now and wasn’t tired. What was twenty-four hours without sleep to a person like me, anyway? “Where are the lockers?” I asked. “We might as well store my things and find something to do for the next few hours.”
“There aren’t any lockers here.”
“No storage at a bus terminal? There must be.”
“Welcome to Korea,” sighed Linda, shaking her head. “There are some services that are just not available here like they are back home. And unless you feel like dragging your stuff through the big crowds and along the uneven sidewalks outside, I’m afraid we’re stuck here.”
With those words, my fatigue came back with a vengeance. “Like you said, ‘bad news.’”
When someone is exhausted enough and in a strange place, time can pass quickly; even more so if that someone is in a place where everything is new. I had stood almost motionless from the spot where we first set my bags. Linda did some running around, getting herself some kim-bapvegetables, meat or seafood, and rice, wrapped in seaweed, similar to Japanese sushiinsisting that I try some, but I was still full from the in-flight meal. Also, so fatigued, I was a little shy to try new food. We talked about Chŏnju, the hagwon, the students, and the other teachers. Chŏnju was a city of about seven-hundred-thousand people in an area smaller than downtown Ottawa. There were currently some two-hundred to two-hundred-and-fifty foreigners living in the city, and most, to my surprise, were Canadian. Many of them met regularly at an ex-pat bar on Friday nights, and Linda told me that she would take me there next week.
Our hagwon was called Pan-Pacific Language Institute. It was small but apparently had a good reputation and was one of the first English-language hagwons in Chŏnjuthe first one to use native English speakers. Back then, the only thing needed to bring in students was to hang a sign that advertised English lessons, back in the days when the president, Kim Young-sam, spent lots of money and resources to promote Korea as a globalized nation, and the language of the world was English. Koreans embraced the notion freely and, as a result, Mr. Kwon’s business flourished. Once he had native speakers teaching his English classes, people paid whatever it cost to get into his institute.
There were currently four native English speakers at Pan-Pacific, including myself, and one Korean-Australian woman who worked there part-time. The other two instructors had been in Korea for the same amount of time as Linda: Emily, a twenty-three-year-old American from Pennsylvania, was fresh out of college when she took the job. According to Linda, she was a party girl and a little immature. The other teacher, Tanya, was a Canadian from Kingston. She had an honour’s degree in English from Queen’s University, also in Kingston, and had her CTESLa certificate to teach English as a second languagefrom Carleton University, the university from which I graduated some nine years ago. Tanya was a pro, according to Linda: she knew so many tricks to keep her students interested, engaged. She had worked for both the Ottawa Board of Education and the Carleton Roman-Catholic Separate School Board, teaching ESL classes to adult immigrants who were hoping to obtain Canadian citizenship. Tanya was full of energy and was eager to share ideas with her co-workers. Outside of work, said Linda, she was a bit of a loner who didn’t socialize with the other hagwon teachers.
There were about a hundred and fifty students at our hagwon, aged anywhere from six to sixty. There were between eight and twelve students in the children’s classes, but usually no more than five to eight students in the adult classes. The books were already chosen for each level, and I would get my teacher’s books on Monday.
Except from our part-timer, Mrs. Yang, we each taught five fifty-minute classes each day from Monday through Friday. Linda gave me my schedule. In the morning, I taught a seven-thirty adult class of intermediate students, followed at eight-thirty by an adult beginner class. I was then free until four o’clock, when I had two classes back-to-back, with elementary-school children. I had a dinner break and then taught adults again at seven. By eight o’clock, I was free. For less than twelve hours, anyway, when I would do it all over again.
“Tanya isn’t too happy with the new schedule,” Linda told me. “She’s qualified to teach adults and she’s stuck with four children’s classes. She wanted your schedule and thought she had the seniority to get it, but Mr. Kwon wanted to start you off with an easy load. This is your honeymoon period and Mr. Kwon likes to romance the newcomers.”
“Keep me happy, right?” I grinned. “Still, I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes. I’d hate to have enemies right from the start. I prefer to come by them honestly, over a period of time.”
Linda smiled at my joke. “Don’t worry, it’s not your fault. You had no say in the matter, same as Tanya. She’ll be mad at Mr. Kwon, not at you.”
The bus ride to Chŏnju was a bit of a blur. Exhaustion had finally got the better of me, especially because there wasn’t much to see out the window, save the darkness, which was interrupted by the flash of headlights from cars in the opposing lanes. The so-called Excellent Express bus had oversized seats that fully reclined and even offered leg support. It was like sitting on a mobile Lazy-Boy chair. For each row, there were two seats together, an aisle, and then a single seat that took the right-hand side of the bus. There was so much space between the chairs that were paired off that you never knew there was someone next to you. It didn’t take me long to drift to sleep, leaving Linda to her novel, a Clive Cussler adventure. I didn’t get into a deep sleep, and every so often my eyes would open, occasionally revealing small clusters of lights from the cities we passed. The highway we were on seemed to never cut through any cities, but merely skirted around them. As much as I wanted to see the countryside and fought to keep my eyes open, the darkness prohibited me from any stimulation. Looking out at nothing, thinking of nothing, I drifted off. Peaceful, peaceful sleep. It wasn’t until the bus slowed and I could feel it negotiating a circular exit ramp that I stirred. I vaguely remembered seeing a toll gate with the city’s name lit up on a large signboard and I slowly began to wake in earnest as we entered Chŏnju. There weren’t many lights on in the buildings we passed and traffic was almost nonexistent. I looked at my watchit was just past two o’clock. Back home, it would be Saturday, just after twelve noon. I had been travelling for about twenty-seven hours.
I looked over to Linda, who was asleep, at peace, as I had been moments earlier. It seemed a shame to wake her; she had been in Seoul all day, half of her time spent going to the airport, waiting for me, and then bringing me here. I owed her a lot and knew that there wasn’t much I could do right away to repay her. And I knew I was going to rely heavily upon her until I was acquainted with my new surroundings. I put my hand on her shoulder and gave her a gentle shake. Her eyes flickered to life, and she stretched and yawned.
“Are we there?” she asked.
“You tell me: I’m new here. I’m pretty sure we passed through a toll gate a few minutes ago. This city seems to be asleep.”
She looked out of the window and determined our location. “We’ve got about another five minutes or so before we reach the terminal.”
“Where do we go from there?”
“Tongsan-dong. We’ve actually passed the neighbourhood already but the way the bus goes, we sweep around the southern end of the city before we head towards the bus terminal. We’ll have to backtrack by taxi but it won’t take us long. We cut through the middle, along the main artery.”
“How much is that going to cost?” That was the Scot in me, always thinking about money. Just like my dad.
“About four- or five-thousand won.” No more than seven Canadian dollars.
“I didn’t pay you for my ticket to Chŏnju. How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re going to need to save as much of your money as you can until you get settled.”
“That’s kind of you,” I said, “but you don’t have to do that. I brought enough money to last me a month.”
“You’d be surprised at how fast your money goes in the first month. Just return the favour by doing the same for the next person who comes to replace me. When I first came to Korea, no one came to the airport to meet me. I had to make it to Chŏnju on my own.”
“Christ,” I gasped, “you must be kidding.”
“No,” Linda said, the floodgates of frustration opening as though she were living through the ordeal again, “I guess Mr. Kwon figured that we were educated adults and could find our own way here.”
“Maybe it was a test to see what kind of resourceful person you are.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but I doubt it. Luckily, one of the secretariesthere are three, by the wayfaxed me in Canada with basic directions and some instructions written, in Korean, that I could show to people so that they could point me in the right direction. I couldn’t speak or read Korean, so without the fax I would have been lost. As it was, it was the most terrifying and stressful experience in my life.”
Luckily, I had a few weeks to prepare myself before leaving Canada. In that time, I learned to read the language, Hangul, and was able to read place names like Chŏnju and Seoul, and could make out a few other words. Hangul is a phonetic language and is easy to learn as far as sounding out words. Comprehension, on the other hand, was another matter. I also learned a few basic phrases and made the Lonely Planet Korean Phrasebook my inseparable companion.
“Anyway,” continued Linda, “after that fiasco, I promised myself I’d never let anyone suffer what I had gone through to get here. I think that if I do this for you, you will do it for the next teacher.”
“I appreciate it,” I said. “And I’ll be sure to pass on the good deed.”
The cab ride to Tongsan-dong was an exercise in sheer terror. At this late hour, most of the traffic lights were on a flash cycle and the cabbies were reluctant to give way to other drivers. Most of the ride from the bus station was in a straight line, down a major thoroughfarewhich I later learned was called Paltal-Roand all the cars seemed to disregard the dividing lines of each lane as they jockeyed for position in some unspoken race. When we did come to an occasional red light, our taxi would use the shoulder to slip around any cars in front of it and sit across the pedestrian crosswalks. If our driver felt he could get safely through the intersection, he would sometimes ignore the red light. I also noticed that when they came to a stop, drivers would dim their main headlights, re-activating them again once they got rolling. I thought it ironic that the drivers had such a blatant disregard for the rules of the road but would be courteous in not blinding the driver ahead of them at a red light.
I insisted on paying for the cab ride. “Is a tip expected?” I asked Linda, who seemed too tired to object to me paying.
“There’s no tipping in Korea, with the exception of hotel restaurantsbut only in the Western-style hotels, and those are really just in Seoul.”
I was going to like Korea. Another Scot’s trait.
We unloaded the taxi at a small apartment complex. It was half-past two. As we walked to our building, I was overcome by a strong waft of something burning, of some choking smoke. “What the hell is that?”
Linda grinned. “You’ll get used to it. Someone’s burning their garbage. It happens all the time.”
I could smell plastic and other toxic chemicals in the air. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“Yeah, but no one seems to do anything about it.”
We entered the building that had Woo-shin 101 painted on the side of it. An elderly man was sitting on a makeshift cot in a small reception room. Our apparent night-security man. He was facing a small TV set next to the window separating us, watching a program as he watched the elevators.
“Annyong haseyo,” said Linda as we passed by. Hello.
“Nae,” the old man sang back. Yes.
We got in the elevator and Linda punched the button for the eighth floor. “Almost there,” she said. I stayed quiet. I had used up the last of my adrenaline on the cab ride.
We got off the elevator, turned left, and walked to the end of the hall. All of the units were to our right and glass windows looked out onto our little part of town on the left side. I looked below and saw the deep-orange flicker of the burning garbage, its black smoke lost in the evening sky. The stench of it still lingered in my nostrils, mixed with the mustiness of the hallway. At the end of the hall, a small puddle of water had formed on the dirty concrete.
“Did it rain today?” I asked, noticing the open window.
“No,” she said, “they hose down the hallway every other week and it takes a few days to dry.” She produced the keys to room 801 and opened the door. The apartment smelled stale and when Linda turned the lights on I could see the mildew on the greying wallpaper. “Welcome to your new home,” she said. “Here, before I forget,” she reached into her pocket and produced another set of keys. “These are yours. This key is for the apartment, this one is for the hagwon, and this one is for our staff car.”
“You have a set of keys for this apartment too?” I asked, somewhat confused, sure that it wasn’t just the exhaustion.
“Of course,” she laughed, “I live here too, roomy.”
“There must be some mistake. My contract states that I have a private apartment. I’m supposed to have a place to myself.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “As far as I know, you are replacing Roy, who just left. He lived here. So did Emily, until a few months ago. Tanya, who was living in the other place Mr. Kwon provides, found another place to live on her own and Emily took Tanya’s place when she moved out.”
Maybe Mr. Kwon had planned to move Emily back with Linda when he promised me a place of my own, I thought, but didn’t say so.
“I’m sure we can get this problem straightened out on Monday,” said Linda. “In the meantime, you may as well make yourself comfortable.”
She brought me and my things into the spare bedroom. On my way, I surveyed the apartment. We first went into the kitchen and dining room areas, although I used theses terms in the loosest sense. A tiny pine table with two matching chairs made up the dining room, a hideously stark kitchen contained a small sink, a few tiny cupboards running along one wall, and a minuscule window looking out to the hallway from where we had come. There were two small refrigerators where one standard-sized one would have done the job. From here, there were four doors. The biggest, a sliding, frosted-glass door, separated the living room, which contained a tiny vinyl sofa, a minuscule coffee table, and an old TV set. A VCR of the same generation lay underneath.
One of the other doors led to the bathroom. The light was off but I could make out a toilet, sink, and tub in the shadows. I had read that most Korean bathrooms had no tub, but rather a shower head with no curtain. A drain in the floor washed away the water and soap residue. It seemed like a decent-sized bathroom. One door was closed. Linda’s room. She led me to the other room. Judging by the layout of the apartment, my room seemed much bigger.
“Why didn’t you take the bigger room?” I asked.
“This was Roy’s room,” she answered. “He moved out yesterday and I’m settled where I am. I see no reason to change, especially since you’ll be staying at the institute longer than me. Why make you move around again after I leave, or so I thought.”
I supposed it made sense, but I would have taken the bigger room had I been in her shoes. In my books, four months is long enough to go to the trouble.
We deposited my things and then she led me through the living room, which also led onto the balcony. On a shelf there were a couple of pillows and some clean sheets. Linda pulled them down. “If you want to get cleaned up, go ahead. I’ll make up your bed.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said sheepishly.
“Please, I don’t want to be your mother, just a friend. You just look like you want to go to bed. The last thing on your mind is preparing it. I should have done this before I left for Seoul.” She had a smile on her face that said she was genuinely enjoying being needed.
I was too tired to argue. “Thanks,” I said with a yawn.
When I returned to my bedroom in my pajamas, my bed was ready and waiting for meeverything except a little chocolate on the pillow. Linda was already in her pajamas, sitting at the dining room table, waiting for me to free up the bathroom. “I have a lesson to teach at ten tomorrow morning. I’ll be gone by nine-thirty and will be back sometime between eleven-thirty and noon.”
“A class? On Sunday?”
“A private lesson.” She looked at me like I was a child, just learning what life was all about. “You’ll learn about privates soon enough. They’re where the real money is at.” She saw me losing consciousness. “Go to bed, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“And don’t call me ‘Mom!’”