In my efforts to entertain myself and to read into things too deeply while having to watch the same government generated English videos multiple times per week, I came to a single discovery. There is a random white male strewn about the videos amongst the regular characters. He is nameless, always in the background, ominously ever-present. Over time, I realized I was mentally building a criminal case: it is incredibly easy to read these ESL clips as narratives about a pedophile preying upon children eager to demonstrate English grammar and syntax. Suddenly, the bright, sunny world of this textbook becomes a dark tale of deception and creeping, unknown danger.
It began as the observation that this man seemed to operate an innumerable amount of shops. Why does he hold down so many jobs? I wondered. Well, a honky’s got to make it in Korea somehow, I guess, and he doesn’t seem to be an English teacher, so working at a toy store, a convenience mart, a flower shop, a book store, and alternate mini-mart must be how he pays the bills. Sure does have an array of weird hats, though.
My suspicions began to grow when he constantly approached our heroes in street asking for directions to banks, flower shops, and schools. Why do you need to know? And why would you ask these children? At the time I was confused about the setting, whether this was to be taking place in America or Korea, but this solidified for me that the milieu was definitely Korean. Any good Western child knows that talking to a stranger only gets you immediately kidnapped. The only directions a strange adult can offer you are to their rape and abduction van. That these children willingly speak to this man rather than fleeing, screaming danger at the top of their lungs in every tongue they can muster, means they must be in Korea. Helicopter parenting here is not lax on many things, but it’s lax on letting the kids have a bit more freedom to roam (and, one supposes, talking to menacing white men).
He knew these kids’ schedules, and could approach them in the street to strike up conversations. I become concerned. I looked back at old clips from the earlier part of the textbook, chapters covered before I arrived in Korea. As a teacher, you develop danger sense, and I wanted to investigate my suspicions.
Here’s Tony, sitting in the park on the swing, going about his day. Lurking in the fringes of a children’s park, the Man approaches. He stops, and without any other conversation, demands Tony’s age. When Tony tells him he is 8, the Man nods solemnly, with something I now come to interpret as disappointment, and walks off.
Later, in another children’s park, the Man walks by as Julie is jumping rope. He does a double take, then leans in close to Tony and asks for the girl’s name. Tony, too naïve for his own good, willingly produces the information. I begin to wonder what her pseudonym will be in the newspaper article about the eventual court case.
Most damningly, he spies a boy lingering over the ice cream freezer outside of a mini-mart. He slinks up to Julie and hisses, “Who is that boy?” “That’s Minsu,” Julie replies, enunciating carefully, thinking this is simply a video where she will model sentence construction. The Man nods devilishly. He is pleased. “He is nice,” he says. Hunger is in his eyes. Does Korea have Child Services? Will they speak English if I call?
I grow gravely concerned for these fake children. Do they not sense the danger? Has he already worked some psychological trickery upon their soft, trusting noggins so that they do not tell their parents that a man is following them everywhere? Why do they not seek a trusted adult?
Christmas arrives. The regulars gather for a party, and discuss what they want, using similar sentences to underline the proper grammatical functions. They sidle up to Santa, and tell him what they want, with beaming, beatified smiles upon their faces. But… wait! It’s him! HE’S DRESSED AS SANTA AND IS NOW WRAPPING HIS ARMS AROUND THE CHILDREN! Can’t they tell? Why does no one intervene? Are there so few crackers around that only the neighbourhood sex criminal can be hired to fill the red and white suit?
Suddenly, our clip is in Mina’s bedroom. She is praying to Santa for her most desired gift (foreign culture: they don’t always get the fine details right). And then, Santa is IN HER BEDROOM to hand her the gift and, one assumes with great dread, extort her gratitude. For several more chapters after, neither character appears. I scan each of the following chapters, making sure that none of them contain Korean equivalent for “Amber Alert.”
Next year, new textbooks are available for all grades, and different schools can choose different ones. Will these characters reappear? Will they have aged? Will they have grown jaded from their experiences, from how none of their parents or teachers helped them to escape this monster? Will Zeeto, the psychotic manifestation of their shared subconscious traumas, have grown larger and more prominent, a great cyclops or some Frankenstein’s monster of parts, a physical manifestation of the emotional baggage which they now all must carry? Who will write their story? And will the Man finally be brought to justice?