We’re at second round in Jeju City; it’s been decided that I will taxi back with the school administrative fix-it guy who, after being told he couldn’t smoke because there are ladies, promptly fell asleep in the booth. The bar is called Kayser and is therefore ostensibly German themed; the seng maekju –beer on tap– comes in a miniture aluminum keg. Mr. Jang and I tease each other back and forth with the phrase “are your hands free?” which is one way of calling out your neighbor when he or she doesn’t keep your drink full, as it’s culturally prohibited for one to pour one’s own alcoholic beverage. Mr. Kim interrupts to say that his “stomach hurts”–that he is envious–of Mr. Jang’s monopolizing my conversation.
The fact of this outing is all very perplexing to me since I’m the only person here who speaks English. And I have to be careful from now on what I say to students, because one of them told him that I said he only spoke Konglish.
On the way to the city, out the window of my new coteacher’s car, I saw, for the first time in the fading dusk, Halla Mountain covered in snow. I verbalized this surprise and found myself rapping a knuckle against the window in shock of how fucking cool it looked. Mr. Jang said from the backseat (in Korean so this is to the best of my understanding, but my coteacher confirmed when I repeated it in English): “Sara. I have seen this mountain every day for 43 years. But it is the most beautiful today because you are here.” Mr. Jang is nothing if not adept at flattery. We have always had this inexplicable affection for each other; perhaps his is sublimated physical attraction, but what of me?
The first thing I ever noticed about him was his laugh. He seemed to maximize all of the joy that could be had in a moment. I said to my first coteacher, before Mr. Jang and I ever actually spoke, “That man at the end of the table who just laughed –I don’t know him very well, but I think I like him.” And I turned out to be right.
However, from things that I have gleaned, Mr. Jang might be a bigot, if I could take the venom out of that word, if it meant simply what it says in the dictionary without the baggage that attends it. And he beats the girls. And these are things that I have to accept about him.
I actually witnessed one of his beatings for the first time, although I had heard about them from the students. From the perspective of my new desk (his old desk) I cannot see anything below chest level; the girls were on the ground so I saw only the wind up, the stick with something, maybe paper, wound around the end, and heard their crying. The only word of his that I could understand was “bathroom.”
Mr. Jang has been wearing his silicon Steelers “spirit bracelet” every day since the lunch when I distributed the two bags, one black and one yellow, of unlicensed merchandise from the Paper Factory on McKnight Road. He says he likes it because it came from me. Then he tells me that I am a “Pittsburgh virgin.”
He must be able to see from my expression that this does not compute. “What?”
He corrects himself: “Sorry, sorry, Pittsburgh lady.” There is a problem here with the translation of a word in Korean for unmarried woman that has a different connotation when literally rendered in English.
While we wait for the taxi back to Hallim, Mr. Jang buys $13 worth of Halla Bong oranges, the pride of Jeju, and gives them to me. Which I then distribute amongst the rest of our party because the largesse is too much to bear alone. I think he must have given them to me in order to share something that is a source of pride, and I think, then that whatever the true form of his bigotry is –and I don’t like that word but need something stronger than bias– be he a “product of his generation” as we like to say or something else, it is a form that I will never know. And it is inseparable from an abiding affection for his homeland’s treasures.
The administrative fix-it guy sniffs his Halla Bong the entire 35 minute taxi ride and we bid goodbye outside of my building. When I come in, my host mother says in Korean “Did you drink a lot of alcohol? Hurry to sleep.” Which I do.