Kim sonsengnim used to be one of the jollier characters in our gyomushil. He would come in and announce loudly, anyeong, Sara! When I told him that I could not ski, he patiently sat down to explain, in Korean and through mime, how the back and forth motion of the skis creates friction as though this might help me. His wife is an English teacher, so he would practice on me.
When we would talk it was great fun to watch the way incomprehension spreads across a person’s face. It starts in the eyes, which look like they are looking inside themselves, and leaks then down to the mouth where a half smile pulls at the lips as if they are amused by the notion that the other person could be calling you shithead and you’d have no idea. I am all too familiar with this expression, only it’s usually on my face so I don’t see it.
But he moved downstairs with the new semester so I saw him less, and he started coming to school wearing a surgical mask. Which is not too uncommon here, they even sell stylish surgical masks with, like, bunny whiskers on them for kids to wear to school. But this persisted for weeks and I started to wonder, ‘what do you have, man?’ He seemed deflated, acknowledged my insas with just a nod. I thought maybe he was busier this semester than before.
Then he stopped wearing the mask which had been concealing the fact that the right side of his mouth is now permanently downturned. Which drew my attention to the corner of his right eye that can no longer maintain the upward laugh lines of the other side. I had failed to notice that before.
The day of the school picnic, he drove me from the power plant to the sculpture park. He drove onto some closed road under construction and back winding concrete sidewalks that seemed like they would deadend at any moment. It was a beautiful day, though, and we drove near the coastline that juts up against the now lush hilly mountains covered in green. He said the name to himself of where we were headed and plugged letters into his car’s GPS interface. He seemed perplexed when nothing came up. But there weren’t any vowells in what he had typed, only a disconnected string of consonants. He futzed with it as he drove and I thought about trying to put in the word myself, but decided to act like I didn’t realize.
Apparently he awoke one morning after having a lot to drink to find his face thusly disfigured. He would have attended the class trip, but as there’s nothing Western medicine can do for his condition, he has weekly acupuncture appointments that he cannot miss. This is how Mrs. Jang related the story to me, talking as though it were mysterious and inexplicable, never using the word stroke.
I wonder, how different is he beyond what I even realize? Can he still teach physics? Living here sometimes is like having to perceive everything through touch –but with a pair of gloves on– my social world rendered in crude outline. That’s at best, though, more often it’s a pair of mittens.