What? It’s just a giant fishpile.
I sat alone in Rodeo Square in Incheon, and took, for the first time in a long time, a real look around. The buildings were tall, even here in a major bar and café zone, with 10 storey parking lots and apartments overlooking the scrum. Facing the south was a building that included Strawberry Massage Parlour, Funny Funny, and a barbershop where you could also buy coffee and jagerbombs. Looming behind me was an enormous cartoon Blackbeard, advertising Pirate Hof. Everywhere people were grilling meat, as steam and smoke poured out into the square. High above me was a club where the lights turn on for short intervals during which you are allowed to buy drinks; in the interval of darkness, you are allowed only to dance. Nearby several women in complementarily hued mini-skirts and enormous heels strut together, handing out fliers and inviting men to a bar where you can pay them to talk and be nice to you. Several feet from them are dapper dudes offering the same service. The women’s strategy is to look alluring and easy-to-please, the men’s to look aloof and uninterested. They are all the professionally attractive. A new chicken place has opened: in the centre of the square, a woman is running a lottery, another woman is dancing with her face frozen in boredom, and a short man in Juggalo makeup wanders around on stilts.
Pink fur flashes through my periphery: the man in the full-body bunny costume has once more completed his loping circuit of the outer perimeter. I refuse the flier he offers me.
It strikes me for the first time in years that I am in a very weird place.
Can’t I just say that I’m from Earth? That’d simple it up some.
The immigration officer was getting more and more agitated. “Why didn’t you list the flight you left Canada on?” he growled. A vein bulged in his toady forehead, and I tried to will it to burst through telekinesis. I was coming back for a funeral and had been on a plane for 13 hours, my butt ached, and was not really capable of overwhelming him with charm and pleasantness.
“Because I don’t remember. It was about 7 months ago.”
“Well, what have you been doing for 7 months?!” he asked testily. He seemed to be implying that I must have been running drugs or had packed several Korean orphans into the depths of my suitcase. I told him that I had been living in Korea, and he practically screamed to the heavens, castigating me as to why I had dared to write my Canadian address instead of my Korean one. Was I dumb? Did I not understand my own country’s notions of home and which one to write down on immigration form 38-C?!
Kindergarten: tiny adults in training.
It was a local news story about Halloween safety. Stock footage of adorable tykes marching up and down halls played: Spidermen and fairy princesses and home-made crafty monstrosities constructed by invested parents. Soon we rushed to a classroom where concerned grade ones looked into the camera and handed down safety advice to their peers so that they could enjoy their Halloweens in comfort and without fear. You never know which piece of candy is filled with razorblades and spider eggs, their shining eyes seemed to say.
Suddenly the camera cut to Charlie. Charlie was a kindergartener I had taught two years before – a Chinese immigrant who spoke only Mandarin at home. A respectful tot in the midst of a silent phase, he showed his appreciation for our snack choices, enjoyed Wednesday afternoon baking projects, and loved the water table. He looked into the camera, wizened almost, as though passing down knowledge from generations past, unearthed from ancient tomes in tongues only he could read. “Always make sure your parents check your candy.” He gave a serene, concerned nod. Don’t fear. Charlie knows what you need to do. Charlie has lived some life. He’s been in the shit.
Things are very nearly settled into their summer gear here at SUF HQ, which, as you may recall, is the dining chair in front of my laptop where I eat ice cream in my underpants. The sun is shining, the air is thicker than oil, and the tropical storms and monsoons have begun to cleanse the roads of puke like some vengeful god drowning away our sins. The day of release from our constraints is nigh, and everyone I interact with is essentially checked out. Children, adults, teachers and students, Korean or foreign: it’s time for summer vacation.
As a teacher, you develop a lot of useful abilities and habits. You know how to run a room full of children, you know how to scaffold learning, you know how to lead a herd of horses to water and how to cajole them, carefully and fitfully, to drink the damn water. You gain responsibility, a sense of reciprocity and generativity with the next generation, and a deep investment in the future of society through your work with the tiny people who will make that future. You learn how to seem bigger and more powerful and more mature and more sensible than you really are, and you learn how to be something that is somewhere nebulously between parent, textbook, coach, and judge.
You also pick up a few weird other things along the way.
We had been spending the day on the beach, enjoying the sun, eating deep bowls of seafood and noodles, and walking the kilometre through the weird mudflats to get to the real water. When the sun began to set lazily, we left the beach and waited for a bus to get back to the mainland. In time, I noticed some commotion: the people next to me were staring, and discussing me with great import. They were in the deepest of cabals, practically huddling, with heads burrowed into one another’s so that their words could not escape their secretive ring. They were discussing something of import. Of gravity.
After a few moments, the bravest of these champions approached me. He had steeled himself for this moment. Maybe he was wearing armour underneath his hiking gear, I cannot be sure. Speaking to a stranger in English is often like dragonslaying, and I admired this curious stranger for his bravery and stout-heartedness in the face of such danger.
“We wanted to ask you something. About your t-shirt.”
Photo is actually to scale.
The moment I enter another friend’s apartment in Korea is usually a time of burning, roiling jealousy. The apartments my friends live in seem cavernous, nearly monstrous–hulking, beyond-spacious grand cathedrals. I look around at the enormous amount of free space, the storage, the kitchen counters, the presence of more than one room, and I think you could fit a whole family in there. An extended one, with lots of live-in uncles and aunts and in-laws and third cousins. Some of their friends and well-wishers, too. Maybe a few transients. And then I think of my apartment and I begin to plot this friend’s destruction.
For obvious reasons, I can’t share photos of my kindies. Enjoy a stock photo of some little Buddhist figurines!
It was probably one of the most rewarding and exhausting work experiences of my life, running a kindergarten class. It was my first practicum, and I was fresh-faced, desperate for a good recommendation from my teacher and principal–and thus a rabid boot-licker, and just high-energy enough on a regular basis to power space travel. It fell to me to basically keep a room full of children from falling victim to their own selves: from attacking one another or unwittingly ingesting food they were allergic to. Making them regularly get to the bathroom so they didn’t soil themselves. If I wasn’t keeping a close enough eye on them, it was entirely possible that one or more of them would have drowned in the sand box. I was a human petri dish, my pockets were filled to the brim with mucus-encrusted tissues from the kids, and it was my duty to teach them colours and numbers and how to read. And to make sure they didn’t die.
Enjoy your battery acid, grown-up.
I remember the very first time I tried a sip of beer: it was cold, out of the bottle, my father’s brand. I was young, and as with most young boys had a vague idolization of everything my father did as the epitome of adulthood. Beer, I thought, was certainly a part of adulthood, and I was a big boy. I deserved to drink the big boy drinks. After enough pestering, and with a knowing eyeroll, my father offered me a sip.
I may have spat it on the ground. Beer sucked.