Chapter 7


"It's the last time I'm going to ask you, Roland."
 
"Is that a promise, Siobhan?"

"I don't promise," said Mum, "I'm going to implore until you pass through the security doors. I don't want you to go. After all of the stress that you faced last year, why would you want to put yourself through more?"

"Because I'm now more experienced: I know what lies ahead, at least where employment and culture are concerned." Indeed, 1997 had been a stressful year, and at times it seemed that I had moved from the agony of the loss of my family members to the ordeal of acclimatizing to a new culture at a time of economic crisis, to the heartbreak of finding love and then having that love turn away.

But 1998 was a clean slate and I had a head start on the culture. I could speak a little Korean—how to order food in a restaurant, how to ride in a taxi and tell the driver where to take me, how to shop, and how to tell Koreans, who would point at me and identify me out loud that I was an American, that I was definitely not: "Mi-gook saram anim-nida; Canada saram imnida." I'm not American, I'm Canadian. Sometimes I would say I was Scottish, but for some reason, saying "Suh-ko-tuh-lan-duh saram" seemed clumsy. Taking five syllables in Korean for a two-syllable word, in English, was ridiculous to me. At least "Canada" sounded like Canada.

And, having told my employers that I was from Canada, I wanted to stick to that story. Even when I was correcting strangers about my nationality.
The worst of the Korean economic crisis seemed to be over, and although the won was a fraction of its value when I first arrived, it no longer seemed to be in freefall. My previous employer, Kwon, lost a lot of money because he was paying me an American-dollar wage in Korean won. As his currency fell, he was shelling out more money.

Until he stopped paying me altogether.

Jeonju University negotiated my contract in the country's own currency. I was to be paid, one-and-a-half-million won, which was currently about twelve or thirteen-hundred Canadian dollars. I no longer had to think of my pay in terms of American dollars. This was less than I was earning from Kwon, but I really wasn't living in Korea to strike it rich.

And while my friend, Brad, was no longer in Korea, there were people I knew who remained. Sadly, my friends, Jody and Jamie, who had put me up when Kwon's language school had failed, were leaving Korea at the end of March. It would be hard to find three friends as loyal and caring.

"I'll be fine," I reassured my family. "Just one more year. I felt that everything fell apart at the end of last year: I want to come away from Korea with a firm sense of accomplishment. Last year felt like a race that I was close to completing, but stopped just short of the finish line with an unexpected injury. I want to run the race again, but this time I'm going to reach that finish line."

"Oh, Roland, how I worry about you when you're over there," said Mum.

"I'm a grown man, Mum, I'll be fine."

We were in Edinburgh, out on the town for my last supper. Siobhan wanted to go to a fine-dining restaurant in New Town, just a short walk from her home. But I wanted to see some of the older end of the city, so we packed ourselves into a taxi and went to Greyfriars Bobby's Pub, on Candlemaker Row, just east of Grassmarket. From spring to late summer, this pub was a tourist attraction, with the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal Skye Terrier who lived his remaining days at the grave of his master, John Gray, who had been a police officer and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, just behind the pub. A monument to the dog was in front of the pub.

I liked this pub because it was a good place to find real ales. And, at this time of year, only the locals showed up. I sipped my cask-conditioned ale and dug into my bacon cheeseburger and chips, perhaps my last chance at such comforts for several months, if not for my entire stay in Korea. I would be bringing lots of staples back to Korea: coffee, flour, cocoa. Items that would last me for months. Who knew when I'd have a proper hamburger, or pizza? Best to savour this flavour now, because in a couple of days I would be back to kimchi and rice.

Tomorrow morning, I would be on a plane back to Ottawa. Just a twenty-four-hour stay, enough time to pack my bags and catch a few hours of rest, and then onto a twenty-seven-hour journey that would take me to Toronto, Tokyo, Seoul, and then finally Chonju. Jody and Jamie were expecting me, would put me up for however long it took the university to find me my flat—apartment, ah-pah-tuh. It was going to be an early evening, straight to bed after supper.

My last view of Edinburgh before my departure would be nothing to sneeze at. The third floor or Siobhan and Bryan's Georgian-styled home had a guest room that faced south, with an unfettered view of the castle. With the drapes pulled back, I could lie on my back in bed and clearly see the lit structures. Along with the view of Ottawa's Parliament Hill from the Mackenzie King Bridge, over the Rideau Canal, and last-year's view from the Great Wall of China, it was one of the best sights in the world.

"Here's to Roland," said Bryan, raising his tumbler of twenty-five-year-old Laphroaig, "may his travels be safe and prosperous, may he encounter good fortune and new friendships, and may he find the happiness he so deserves." In the face of the opposition that my mother and sister had toward my leaving them, I could always count on Bryan to support me. He loved my sister but knew that he could solidify approval by seeming diplomatic on all fronts.

He had my approval. "Sliànte," I said, touching my pint glass to his vessel of fine malt.

"Sliànte mhath," said Mum and Siobhan, reluctantly.

Yes, Bryan was in my good books.

***

I knew I was cutting it tight.

I was scheduled to meet with the director of the English-language department at nine o'clock on Thursday morning, February 26. I arrived in Chŏnju at two o'clock, having called Jody and Jamie as soon as I passed through customs at Kimp'o International Airport. The express bus to the Core Department Store left at precisely eleven, and I had it practically to myself: an old man went to the very back of the bus, pulled his baseball cap over his round face, and slept for the entire journey.

And Kristen was with me, had sat in the vacant seat that was ahead of me and across the aisle, on the trip to Ottawa, and next to me, in the vacant seat from Toronto to Tokyo. I didn't know if she was on board on the other flights, that seemed full: I didn't see her, but felt that she wasn't far.

Great, Roland, you're losing your mind.

Though jet lag had messed with my sleep pattern and I couldn't get a solid rest, I forced myself to keep my eyes shut for the three-hour journey. Having taken this route at night almost exactly a year ago, I knew there was nothing to see anyway.

Jamie and Jody had been watching a movie when I called and decided to throw on a second video after learning I was en route. When I reached their front door, Life Is Beautiful was rolling through the closing credits. I was met with a warm embrace from both of my friends. We had met late last summer, in Beijing, when we were in an ex-pat tour. Tanya and I were together, and the four of us spent a lot of time together. When Kwon's hagwon crumbled and we were forced to move out of our apartment, Tanya and I sought refuge with Jamie and Jody.

Jamie helped me carry my luggage to the guest room—the last room where I had seen Tanya. Where we had made love. Where she told me she wanted to have babies with me—not there, not immediately, but in time. Where I told her that my baby-making days had ended after the birth of Laura Elizabeth, after Kristen and I had decided that we wanted only one, perfect child. Where our relationship ended.

While I found it impossible to return to my Ottawa bedroom after Kristen died, I could return to Jody and Jamie's guest room. It was a simple concrete box, with a frosted window large enough only to allow an adult to narrowly escape, in case of an emergency, into a dim alley. It was a dark and sound-proof room, and would allow me to sleep late, if I needed to.

I immediately set an alarm to get me up for seven. I couldn't afford to miss my meeting.

With the fatigue I felt, you would have thought I would have wanted to go straight to bed, would have wanted to catch up with my friends after a good sleep, after meeting with the department head and fellow teachers. But I felt my second wind at seeing these familiar faces, and I wanted to catch up with them. And Jody and Jamie had shown no signs of wanting to retire, had no classes until the afternoon, and wanted to catch up with me.

Their contracts at Wonkwang University, in Iksan, were coming to an end on March 15, which was a Sunday, but they would only be required to work until the thirteenth. Their plane tickets home, to Alabama, were already purchased and they were eager to head out on that Sunday. They weren't going to spend a minute longer in Korea than was absolutely necessary.

"Jody is desperate to get out of here," explained Jamie. "If she could, she'd go home tomorrow."

"I miss my family," she explained. "My sister had a baby in November and I want to hold my nephew."

"I remember," I said. "You're overdue for a reunion." Having just come away from my own, I understood the overwhelming urge to be with family. If Siobhan had asked three more times, I might have stayed in Scotland.

"Plus," she added, "if someone puts kimchi under my nose one more time, I'm going to throw up."

We chatted until almost four o'clock, when I feared that I was approaching a point where, if I didn't get a few hours of sleep, I would have to force myself to stay awake until after my appointment. Any fewer than four hours of sleep and no alarm in the world would arouse me on time.

Tomorrow was a new start: Korea, round two. I would no longer be a Songsaengnim, a teacher; I would be a Gyeosunim, a professor.

No comments: