Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Want A Ride

I've been sitting on this story a week or so, letting it percolate. It was one of those things that wasn't so big, considering all of my experiences in Korea, yet is representative of the kinds of innocent cultural clashes that can occur here.

I take the bus to school. The bus stop is along a major thoroughfare so people often stop to give me a ride. Usually it's a teacher but on this one day it was a student's father, giving his son and another student a ride to school. They stopped and motioned me over. I got in and almost immediately the father, who looked to be not much older than me, was saying, "Everyday, everyday." He wanted to give me a ride everyday.

I have learned from experience that this kind of kindness is often a trap. Not like there's a hidden agenda but for every act of kindness you receive, you become beholden to that person in some way. This is doubly true when it's a student's parent. Teachers are expected to be paragons of moral virtue and any slip-up will result in problems not just for the parties involved but for the whole school. So you can understand why I got nervous when he told me, "Everyday." But I was trapped. I was in the car with him and two of my students. I had to say yes.

And so it was that I found myself leaving the house 15 minutes earlier everyday and getting a ride from this man, who owned an intestines-soup restaurant around the corner from my house. I would show up at the restaurant at 7:55, the time instructed to arrive. I would watch his son eat his breakfast, politely refuse a similar breakfast for myself, and then we would drive across town to pick up the other student and be dropped at school almost 30 minutes earlier than I needed to be there.

Aside from the change in schedule, things were going along fine until a few days in, when the usual probing (read: uncomfortably personal) questions and typical teacher treatment I was used to began to change. When the father found out I was close to his age, he started yelling, "Chingu ya!" ("Friends!") and switched from parent/teacher mode to drinking buddy mode.

I should mention here that what determines friendship in Korea is less shared experience than similarity in age. When even a one-year difference can preclude intimacy, the fact that you're the same age means you don't have to worry about who's junior or senior and can meet each other as equals. We weren't exactly the same age but it was close enough for him to go straight to bosom pals without—as we Westerners might prefer—earning it.

It started mildly enough, with jokes about how sleepy I looked and such. I was surprised at first. I'm used to this kind of teasing from my fellow teachers. I don't always like it, usually because there's a language barrier and humor is also very culturally specific, but they have earned the right to tease me. I rarely tease them back for a variety of reasons but I know them so I know their hearts are in the right place.

One morning I was sitting at a table, watching the son stab at his meaty soup with his chopsticks, when the father came right up to me, stuck his finger to within a few inches of my left eye, and said something in Korean. It's very rude to point in Korea, let alone stick your finger in someone's eye. I turned to the son, waiting for the translation. His son was only a first-year middle school student and his English, while not as bad as many, was not that great. His vocabulary was limited and he tended to over-rely on the "to be" verb, even sticking it in sentences that already had perfectly good verbs. He looked at me, thought about what his father had said, and translated, "Dog eye."

"I have dog eyes?" I asked, incredulously. Dogs are not animals of privilege in Korea. A common Korean insult is "dog baby," or as we might say, "son of a bitch." I turned to the father and said "dog eye?" in Korean to make sure he really did say that. He just laughed. The son quickly added, "Handsome!" but the damage was done. I had dog eyes.

Over the next few days it got worse. Korean men like to pretend they're angry. It's a joke, of course, but for someone who isn't used to it and can't understand what's being said, it sounds identical to real anger. Imagine sitting in a car. The man who is sitting one foot to your left is yelling at you in a foreign language. You assume he's not really mad but all you have to go on is the tone of his voice. The translation that arrives is garbled and heavy on the "to be" verb, if one comes at all.

I began to dread these morning rides. Why did I agree to this, I kept asking myself. I could feel my stomach knotting up as I was getting ready to go to school. I don't mind taking the bus, I would say. I don't like getting to school so early, I would justify.

On the last day of our carpool, while sitting in the car on the way to school, the father asked me if I had gone to see his daughter dance in the local Christmas pageant the night before. I really did want to go but in typical Korean fashion he only told me about it the morning of the event. When I said, "Busy," he started in on the anger thing. I knew it was coming. My stomach was already starting to hurt. All of the emotions I had been suppressing the past few weeks came out: "I don't know if you're really angry or joking," I said, the desperation ringing in my voice. His son translated and he clarified, "Joke, joke." I explained that in America we don't yell at acquaintances like that, to which he said something back in Korean in what I can only assume was meant to be a joking tone but sounded to me like sarcasm. No one spoke the rest of the ride.

I consulted with my co-teachers about what to do and my head co-teacher volunteered to mediate. I felt like a coward, having someone else fight my battle for me, but in Korea it's better for a mediator to handle things than for there to be a confrontation. He explained that Americans aren't comfortable with others helping them and that they like to do things by themselves. He didn't mention that I was offended. I still felt sick over the whole thing, especially since my students had been in the car, but it was over now. Almost.

A few days later the middle school vice principal called my co-teacher. Apparently the father came to him to find out what happened. He had been trying to lighten the mood and I had gotten offended. He was embarrassed and wanted to clear the air. My co-teacher never mentioned that the father had been rude and wasn't treating me like his son's teacher so the vice principal thought I should take rides from him again. But my co-teacher insisted this way was better.

I fully believe that the father was only trying to be funny. He wasn't trying to offend me. But in general, if you tease someone and they don't tease you back, or they laugh uncomfortably, it's pretty obvious they're not enjoying it. Had this situation happened in the US I would have deflected the blame by explaining to him that the time was inconvenient for me and refused the rides. But here, without the luxury of fluency, I could only get frustrated.

The person I truly feel bad for is the son, my student. He's probably the most embarrassed of all of us.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Never Say Never Again

I've gone and done it. I've applied to JET again. After such a long application process, to be put on the waiting list was more than I could bear. I ended up in Korea and figured when I finally did make it back to Japan, it would not be with JET. Also, JET had an age limit of 40 which I was fast approaching.

And then they went and dropped the age limit.

And so I found myself once again gathering together letters of recommendation and college transcripts, writing an essay about why Japan needs me, and stressing about little things in the online application. Ah, natsukashii. I even had a moment of terror when I was hospitalized with pneumonia before I had finished the application. But, thanks to a liberal patient containment policy and a very helpful co-teacher, I was able to get everything printed out and mailed to Washington D.C. on time.

Now the waiting. Come January, JET will hopefully inform me that they want me to interview. I figure my chances are pretty good, now that I have actual teaching experience to back up my BA in Japanese. Then I'll fly off to Guam for a combination job interview/tropical vacation. If all goes well, I'll find out in April whether or not I got the job, and then start in August 2012.

Lord help me if I end up on the waiting list again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Weeks In Jaeil: The Hospital Diaries

Portrait of the author as a hospital patient.
After almost a week of constant fever and already at least two visits to doctors, I had my co-teacher meet me at Jaeil Hospital to ask the doctor to take some tests and see what was going on. He told me again he didn't think I was all that sick but indulged me with an X-ray, blood work and a piss test. It's a good think he did: I had pneumonia and needed to be hospitalized right away, for at least two weeks. How did I go from "not serious" to two weeks in the hospital? He showed me the X-rays. I could plainly see the sea anemone blooming in my left lung. And that was that.

After a quick trip back to my apartment to grab a few things I was being shown to my new room. I was never even checked in. At one point I sat for a few minutes in a room that looked like it might be for new patients but then I was gone again. The only time I ever signed anything was for a CT scan.

My bed was in a room on the third floor. The room had six beds where even four might be considered cramped. Each faced away from the wall with just a retractable yellow curtain to offer a suggestion of privacy. I changed into the hospital pajamas they provided—thank god they didn't open at the back, I was spared that one indignity—said goodbye to my co-teacher, and climbed into bed.

I finally allowed myself to look around. I had avoided making eye contact with the men in the room because I knew they were all staring at me. I knew they had watched my every move with a curiosity reserved for those for whom nothing much new ever happens any more. They were staring, baldly and boldly. I decided to ignore them for the time being and try to relax.

I laid flat on my back, my head on a rock-hard rubber pillow. The bed did not recline. It did not move at all. If we needed to sit up, we pulled ourselves up. If we needed to lie back, we used our arms, often leaning on the IV tube to do so. After a couple of times of doing this and smarting from the pain, I learned to keep that plastic leash away from my body. (I also eventually realized that the pain was just the tape pulling on my arm hair and not the needle breaking off in my vein.)

With my co-teacher gone, the full weight of my situation began to come down on me. I was going to be in this place for two weeks. I had never stayed overnight in a hospital before in America, let alone Korea. I was in a room with four old men with obvious respiratory issues. And from what I had seen so far, hygiene didn't seem to be high on the list of hospital priorities.

The bathroom was public. It was for the whole floor. You dragged your IV stand down the hall and either stood in front of the urinal or you parked it in front of a stall and locked the door on the tube. There was hand soap but not always paper towels.

Next to the bathroom was the public washing area. This consisted of a row of sinks with shower attachments for hair washing. There was a rubber bed under a nozzle in one corner. I was reminded of those scenes in The Wall when Pink is running around in the military hospital, reading poetry in the grim stalls. I had no hand soap to wash with. I had no shampoo. Hell, even Korean motels provide that. I was in a place lower than a love motel.

Bed with a view
The hospital didn't even have that antiseptic hospital smell. Usually that smell is enough to turn your stomach but I was longing for it. Watching two old ladies slop water around the floor of our room wasn't enough to convince me that the hospital really was clean.

I settled back into my bed and tried to sleep. There was a TV mounted to the wall at the foot of my bed that stayed on from 6:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I had forgotten earplugs. Luckily I had my iPhone and iPad, and busied myself complaining on Facebook until I fell into an uneasy unconsciousness.

Around 9:00 pm the heater next to my bed, which I had been eyeing worringly all day, finally kicked into life. It started innocuously enough but soon was pumping out hot air into my face. The door to the room closed, the lights went out, and the temperature crept ever higher. I don't know if I ever even fully slept that night. I remember sitting up in bed, staring out the window in the direction of my apartment, which I knew was forgivingly cool and spacious and private. The veil between Korea and myself had been completely obliterated. I was naked in a hot wind, and I cried.

Not long after I awoke the next day, a sixth patient was brought to our room, filling all the beds. Although I rarely saw him, he being hidden by the curtain that I stubbornly kept drawn, I began to think of him as the Executive. In glimpses, I could see he was not as rough warn as the other men in the room, who had the weathered skin of farmers or manual laborers. His hair managed to stay neatly parted even though mine had already taken on the appearance of old straw.

Occupying the third bed on my side of the room and closest to the door was the Sleeper, a man I only ever saw curled up in his blankets. He hardly made a sound except for when he called out for his wife, who invariably was not there. I had him pegged as the first to die.

Across from me was the Baritone, so named for his surprisingly deep voice. I would hear him talking and in my mind I would see a big bear of a man. Reality provided a squirrel. He was frail, with knobby knees, and was blessed with complete freedom of motion. I never could figure out how someone could be sick enough to need to be in there with us but not need an IV. It meant he could wear his own shirt though.

Next to the Baritone was LulzSec. At first I was calling him the Hacker because of the near constant, pained coughing. But in the middle of the first night, I was awakened by what sounded like a hyena laughing. It was him, trying not to cough. This went on all night. In the morning I gave him the new name.

Lastly, there was McMurphy. He didn't seem to be sick at all. In fact, I'm pretty much convinced he lives at the hospital full time. He didn't have an IV and he wore a regular jacket. He also seemed to be the captain of the room. He turned the TV on and off at the appropriate times, and let me know when it was time to eat. He even bussed my tray for me. At one point he swapped out my IV stand for a different one. I was a little miffed at first but then realized my old one didn't have a little tray for carrying stuff. (The new one, however, seemed to have bird droppings on it.)

I was visited later that day by my fellow teachers, who brought me sympathy, thousands of calories worth of desserts, and an envelope of money. One of them mentioned something about a private room and my mind immediately went into overdrive. A private room? You mean I don't have to sleep in this respiratory quarantine room? I can have privacy? Yes, please. And after another night of blast furnace heat and moist hacking, I was able to move up one floor and into my own room.

After two days in the lung ward, I was happy to be getting my own room. Although there were two beds, the second was unoccupied, leaving me in dreamy peace. I had my own bathroom with shower, a closet for my clothes and quickly accumulating gifts and desserts, and even a small refrigerator. I was also pleased to find out that the quality of the food improved. It wasn't gourmet but at least it was edible now And best of all, I could turn the TV off. It was heaven.

Of course, heaven isn't free. I was paying around $70 a day for my privacy. The dorm room, on the other hand, was essentially free, the price of the room included with the daily medical fees. Thanks to nationalized health, this amounts to something like $5.00 a day. In a poor area like this, it makes sense that people would be crammed into small rooms to save money. It also makes sense given the Korean love of company. But if the Republicans ever need another scare tactic to keep people away from a nationalized health plan, a photograph of a Korean hospital room would be enough to keep people up at night.

Now that I was getting enough rest, I was able to get around more during the day. The doctor told me I needed to get some exercise so I dutifully did laps around the darkened first floor of the hospital after dinner. I also exercised my right to leave the hospital and made trips to the convenient store across the street to stock up on necessities, like cookies and canned coffee. I also took occasional trips to my apartment, which was just across the street, to get fresh towels and change the music in my iPhone. I should probably mention that I was still plugged into the IV during these trips. I wasn't the only one out and about either. Patients in pajamas sucking down soju in the local restaurants, their IV stands hovering over them like nervous parents, is a common site in my neighborhood. Don't mind me, just another patient on the lam.

The morning routine.
I quickly established a daily routine. Get woken up at 5 am to take oral medicine. Fall back asleep and wake up again at 7 for breakfast. Eat very little of said breakfast, which is exactly the same spicy and garlicky food as lunch and dinner. After breakfast, wash my hair and sponge myself down, frowning at the smell that will not, no matter how raw I scrub myself, go away. Next, drink a can of coffee and surf the Web on my iPad, and maybe play some Scrabble. That takes me to lunch, which I can eat more of than breakfast. In the afternoon I watch a movie that I rented from iTunes and maybe play some more Scrabble. Then it's dinner and my walk around the first floor. Finally, a little TV and then to bed around 9.

The day was also broken up by visits from the nurses, who forced big turkey basters full of antibiotics into my veins three times a day. This was my only discomfort, as the medicine often burned going in. The nurses were delightful though and I did my best to flirt with them. It helped pass the time and it also got me things like candy and fruit, which would be brought to me with smiles.

After 12 days, the doctor declared me well enough to go home. I slept all day at home that day and then was back to work the day after. Including the fever at the beginning, I was sick for around 3 weeks. I'm still getting my energy back, and still smarting from the hospital bill. I think about how cheap it would have been had I stuck it out in the lung ward, but then again I might still be there, roasting in the heat and nurturing a brand new case of tuberculosis. No, I made the right decision, expensive though it was.