My best friend’s replacement at her hagwon pulled an infamous “midnight run” recently.
Her escape wasn’t discovered until she was likely on a plane bound for home in Australia. Our only indication of this was a presumably-hastily-written email to her recruiter. A “mea culpa” of sorts.
If we were to write an obituary for her Korean death, it could read: You were only 23, with so much left to see, so much left to do. Or: what was your name again?
She was here such a short time that perhaps only one photo, taken during my friend’s goodbye dinner, is the only evidence that she actually ever set foot in this country. Well, that and her suitcase, which she left in the apartment, as well as some ramyeon wrappers and empty soda bottles.
The story could easily end there. Some kid who never worked a day in her life takes a chance teaching in a foreign country, freaks out and bails before she even teaches her first class. But I experienced a similar story almost 10 years ago.
It was when I heard about the abandoned suitcase and food debris that empathy settled in. They both tell a very sad story, one of someone feeling impossibly hopeless and impossibly alone.
Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 24, 2005, my debris were hundreds of cigarette butts. Dunhills, mostly, snubbed out in overflowing ashtrays, in cups, on plates. CNN International filled the air of my apartment with English when it wasn’t filled with smoke. There were no food wrappers since I barely ate, the drying, dying spaghetti remains in the sink and other aging edible wastes a reminder. Trash that should have disposed of sat, though I never bothered finding out how to do that properly. Even today, the scent of rotting banana peels makes me nostalgic.
Instead of trying to make my Korean life, I spent most of my time making expensive collect calls to a girl I broke up with to come here (this is pre-Skype and Facebook, after all). Instead of attending a dinner for the outgoing teacher, then trudging up a very uncomfortable hill toward a very old, unflattering apartment on the Green line in Busan, my outgoing teacher collected me from a bus depot in Jinju, then brought me back to a significantly nicer place. It didn’t matter if the place was nice; my mind was made up. Within an hour of arriving, I asked her if she would reconsider leaving.
There is nothing anyone can say that will change your mind when you’ve lost all hope. I thought then I was making excuses. I know now that wasn’t true.
The anxiety may seem unnecessary when viewed from outside. Sticking it out might seem a better option. But as expensive as it is, for my friend’s replacement and for the company she just fucked over, going home was the only thing she could do. It is a conclusion one can only justify, I think, if you have gone through that hell on earth yourself.
And, believe me, it is hell on earth. It’s your mother dropping dead in the audience for your high school school play. It’s being told you have stage four cancer and only a couple months to live. It’s being forced to admit, after living with a certain set of beliefs for the entirety of your life, it all was a lie. It’s moving your life to another country, only to realize once you’ve arrived that you just can’t hack it.
But, there is growth to be gained living Winston Churchill’s quotation about going through hell: Keep going. In 2005, I at least went far enough to find a replacement before I gave my school back its airfare, bought another ticket and touched down at Newark Airport just in time for Christmas. I took two suitcases home but a third stayed behind. Maybe she did that, too. I still miss that pea-coat.
Sticking it out just a little might have put enough of a flavor for this country in my mouth and in my mind that time could only marinate to a point I’d eventually try again. In 2005 I did not know about dweji gukbap or jjimjillbangs but I did know about noraebangs and gimbap. There isn’t much one can learn about a country and a culture in just a few days consumed with thoughts about getting the hell out of there.
In time she might think about teaching in Korea again, like I did. She might even come back again, like I did. If this empathy I feel is accurate, I can take the next leap and contemplate her thoughts about this unfinished business–a monster that can weigh on the brain heavier than a monster hiding under the bed, in the closet or in a classroom full of curious Korean children. It brought me back three times.
Recently, a friend I made during that first 40 days in Jinju almost a decade ago contacted me to ask if I knew of any job openings in Korea for next year. I asked him if he was serious. In the time since we’ve seen each other on this side of the world, he has had a fairly successful career in New Zealand as both a voice and television actor. He’s married, with several children. Yet, he said he also still thought from time-to-time about the “unfinished business” he left in Korea when he did a runner of his own in December 2005. No one likes to admit they’re still scared of the boogeyman.
Likely, no one will ever know if that’s what ran my best friend’s replacement out of the country after less than a week. That is, until her own unfinished business creeps back out from under the covers.
John Dunphy is an English teacher based in Gimhae. He has been in South Korea (this time) since February 2013. Read more of his work at jpdunphy.wordpress.com.