Korea 005 – Charles and Coffee
My reverie was interrupted suddenly by the arrival of Charles from London, England. He was about 38 years old and to my eyes one step away from a hospital bed. He was gaunt, red eyed and a sickly yellow-white in complexion. The way he moved, he seemed split between manic energy levels and total exhaustion. Dazed almost. I came to know it well as the ‘English teacher in Korea’ look.
He burst through the hanging beads, a leather attache case in one hand. He saw me and immediately came over and sat on the other couch. He wore a tweed jacket on top of jeans, a wrinkled white shirt and an ugly tie, the kind you found on special when you were seven years old to give your father on father’s day. I’d probably never have noticed his dark dress shoes except as he walked across the courtyard I got a telltale flash of white socks.
“Just arrive?” he asked.
I said yes.
“How much are you paying?”
I thought I’d misunderstood him at first. Paying? Paying for what?
“Your room. How much did the Ajimah charge you for your room?”
I thought that a bit odd for a getting acquainted question but I told him and he relaxed and said, “That’s too much. I’m paying less than a third of that. I’ve got a bunk in one of the common rooms. Told the Ajimah I’d stay for a month if she gave me a discount.”
He gave a sigh of satisfaction and then stuck out his hand. “Charles,” he said.
I shook it. “Doug.”
“You know, you should try and get one of the bunks. It would be a lot cheaper. I think someone in my room is leaving tomorrow. Come on. I’ll show it to you.”
We kicked off our shoes into the mountain of footwear at the foot of the two steps and in our socks padded down the hall. He stopped at the first door on the left and pushed it open. The first thing I noticed was the smell. Heavy, musty. Old socks. There were two sets of bunkbeds, three tiers high. The inmates (as I immediately thought of them) were lying in their bunks under as many covers as they could scrounge, chatting and laughing. They were probably all strangers a day or even an hour ago but already they seemed as comfortable with each other as old friends. Indeed, it would take a very anti-social type to keep to himself in such cramped quarters. The very little space between bunks was filled with backpacks, sleeping bags, clothes, cookers, toiletry items, books, paper and stuff sacks. It looked like the aftermath of an explosion at a Good Will.
Now that Charles had me there he didn’t seem to know what to do with me. He lapsed into a listless state and waved in an offhand way at the room, what I had come to see, and then drifted off. He moved about the place, putting down his bag, arranging some books and moving some clothes aside.
He suddenly snapped back to himself and asked, “You want a cup of coffee?”
I said sure, wondering how he was going to manage that feat in this tiny space.
He caught my look and said, “No, not here. At Wendy’s.”
I nearly choked. Fast food on my first night in Korea? “Wendy’s?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s just around the corner. Let’s go.”
On the way out he stopped at another door and pushed it open to reveal another room of bunkbeds. Three African looking guys occupied the three tiers of one bunk bed. “Hi guys,” said Charles with a wave of his hand. The three tried to return the wave as best they could, but with their arms trapped under mountains of covers all they managed to do was set their bunkbed swaying perilously.
“They don’t speak much English,” said Charles as we closed the door and sat on the steps to put our shoes back on. “Everybody says they’re wanted by the authorities, but no one knows exactly where they’re from or what they’re wanted for. I’ve never seen them outside of their room.”
I followed Charles outside, down the alleyways back to the main roads and sure enough to a Wendy’s. It occupied the bottom floor of an old wedge shaped building. It was packed with young Koreans in animated conversation. On the surface the scene would be instantly familiar to any North American and you might think even comforting. Yet I found this familiar sight in such odd surroundings quite disturbing. It felt all wrong like it shouldn’t be here at all.
I took comfort in that below the surface imitation of Western styles, there was a definite Korean flavour. The menu was the same but everyone showed a marked tendency to pour hot sauce over everything. The music over the loudspeakers was western, but it was far too loud and jumped incoherently from mellow love ballads to heavy metal death anthems intermixed with bizarre choices like “Jingle Bells”, “Happy Birthday” and “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.
The young girls behind the cash registers shouted out a greeting to Charles and me as we entered. I caught none of it but noticed it ended with a long drawn out ‘daaa’ sound that dipped and rose and wavered on the air. Then they stood at respectful attention and bowed as we approached. When we reached the counter, our server bowed again, put her hand on the register and rattled out another series of words, but this one ended in a long rising “yooooo”. This complex ritual of polite phrases accompanied every stage of our transaction. No customer could arrive, leave or make any move without these young girls singing out. “Daaa”s and “yooo”s rose and fell around us like a flock of sea gulls at the docks.
Charles ordered four cups of “coppee”, the English ‘f’ sound not having a counterpart in Korean.
“Why four cups?” I asked him.
“You’ll see,” he replied.
When they came I saw that each cup, though a regular size was filled only half way. Charles picked up two of the half filled cups, poured them into the others and then handed the empties back to the startled girl. “I could have done that at the table,” said Charles. “But I like to mess with their minds. I’ve tried ordering a full cup before, even got one of my students to write it down in Korean on a slip of paper but it never works. The only way to get it is to order two or three and combine them.”
We took our coffee upstairs past dozens of inquisitive pairs of eyes and found a table at the window where I could watch the streets below as we talked. Charles continued in the same strange pattern, at times bursting into activity and conversation and then relapsing into defeated silence. During the silence his shoulders and entire face sagged. I noticed he had huge bags under his eyes and many large shaving nicks on his chin.
I was dying to grill him on how to go about finding work as an English teacher but didn’t quite know if I wanted to hear what he had to say. Turns out I really didn’t. He was concerned with only two things, money and women. Nothing he said was positive and he struck me as a man who had reached the end of his tether. His was a grim outlook. As he spoke in cruder and cruder terms I lost the thread of the conversation and simply looked at him and wondered to myself, “Is this what I’ve become? Am I looking in a mirror?”
I excused myself and went in search of the bathroom. I finally found it in the public stairwell next door, a bathroom which they shared with the other concerns in the building. I walked in and immediately left, finding it full of young women. On the door was both a symbol for men and one for women but I was reluctant to trust it. I stood around as nonchalantly as I could and after seeing several Korean men go in that door I got up the courage to follow.
On the left were several stalls with pictures of women on the door and on the right were the men’s. In between was a long mirror with a single sink. It was a unisex bathroom. I edged my way through the crowd of fashionably dressed young women fixing their make up, and, very disconcerted by their scrutiny, dove into the first open stall I found.
The toilet consisted of a simple hole in the floor. There were two raised cement pads on either side shaped roughly like large footprints. I had to experiment a bit to figure it all out. Do you stand and take aim from a great height? Squatting seemed to work better but then which way do you face, towards or away from the door? And more urgently, how do you keep your balance?
I finally emerged with very tired thigh and calf muscles and joined Charles back at the table.
“You want a teaching job?” he asked.
“I’ve got an hour tomorrow morning, seven to eight, that I can’t do. They’re expecting me, but I got a better job today. Pays 5,000 an hour more.”
Just an hour?
“Yeah. But there’s some real babes in the class. I spend all my time dropping things and picking them up so I can check out the action down there under the table. I wouldn’t kick them out of my bed!”
He stirred his coffee vigorously and not for the first time that night I found myself at a loss for words.
“So, you want it?” he asked again.
I wanted work but I wasn’t quite ready for seven the next morning or any position that involved following in his footsteps.
“Who would I call?” I asked.
“You don’t have to call. Just show up. They’re expecting me, but they won’t care. What can they do about it anyway? They’ll be upset the first day or two but they’ll settle down. Just don’t mention me. I gave them a false name and address anyway so they won’t be able to find me. Just tell them you heard about the job from some guy.”
He told me where the class was and drew me a little map on a Wendy’s napkin, but I felt sure I wasn’t going to go. I wasn’t ready for this little slap in the face by reality. I had read that the Korean education system was based on a Confucian model and teachers and scholars were generally highly respected. Strong ties grew between teachers and students and amongst students or so the books said. How did that jive with Charles? Highly respected? This was a puzzle.
During one of his silent and morose periods we dumped our empty cups into the garbage and left. When we reached the door, the girls at the counter shouted out a leave taking phrase. I didn’t know what was the correct thing to do, and, in true Canadian fashion, opted for diplomacy. I turned, smiled at them and waved goodbye. When they burst into laughter, I knew I’d guessed wrong but it didn’t do any harm.
Back at the inn Charles barely acknowledged my ‘goodnight’ and disappeared into his room. My goodnight sounded cheerless and empty even to my ears. Charles had brought my mood down from the clouds and into a rather grim reality. I kicked off my shoes and walked quietly down the hall to my room. For a panicked second, I thought I couldn’t remember the combination to the lock I had brought. It had a very regular combination and normally I could open it even in the pitch dark by touch. Two tries and it hadn’t opened. I had to bring out the small flashlight I carried with me. I got in and spent a cold fitful night wrapped up in the ibul and still fully clothed.