By Hardy Jones
It was our first day of class at the Institute of Foreign Language in a small town in South Korea, and Nigel held court in the center of the office, hovering over Mr. Yang’s desk, waving his hands and pontificating on his understanding of chaos theory, while neither Mr. Yang nor Nigel, had a clue as to what he was rattling on about. But Nigel meant what he said, and his face reddened and purpled as his convictions intensified.
“Are you ready for the opening ceremony, Calvert? I say, is your family British?” Nigel asked.
“Part of it is, but we don’t like to make the fact known.”
“How fierce. I say, Mr. Yang, you got us a fierce one here. How old are you, Calvert?”
“A mere child still. You ever work in Asia before?”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“…oh dear. You have only been alive six more years than I have been teaching.”
“What degree do you have?”
“I hold a Bachelor’s degree from the University of London and Master’s in Linguistics from New South Wales University.”
“I have a Master’s too,” I said. “Isn’t that something. I’m half your age and hold the same number and level of degrees.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Nigel, Mr. Calvert,” Yang said, “we have to go up to the opening ceremony.”
On the third floor was the auditorium. It held about a hundred people and had fold down thinly cushioned chairs like in movie theaters. Half of the seats were filled with Korean English teachers, our students, the ones for whom I’d help demystify writing. At least that was the plan. The foreign instructors sat on the front row; Nigel and Mic sat on the far side of the aisle, while Marcia sat on the side closest to the door. I didn’t want to be any closer to Nigel than necessary, so I eased into the seat by my countrywoman.
The stage was low and on the back wall hung the South Korean flag. We were commanded to stand and salute the flag. In unison, the Koreans bowed, and I watched the other foreign teachers to see if I was supposed to bow too. Luckily, I didn’t have to, but before we could sit, they sang the South Korean national anthem, and they weren’t holding back. My supervisors: Mr. Yang, Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim, all sat in high back wooden chairs to the left of the stage, by a small podium, from which Mr. Kim, being the highest ranking, introduced the school’s Chairman Mr. Cho, who had a yellowish face and a gold cap in the back of his mouth that I saw on the few occasions he laughed, and his suits were always of better quality than the supervisors’. He stood at the podium on the stage and mumbled through a meandering speech about the world being an international village, Korean people get over your xenophobia, English is the language of the 21st century, and feel free to speak it while you’re here, but it’s not mandatory.
Then he introduced the instructors, making the Western concession of introducing the ladies first. But the Confucian practice of elders first was in full effect, and since I was the youngest, I was introduced last. Marcia, a hypochondriac, mistrustful American lady who ended up being my only friend there; Nigel, an anachronistic colonial-minded Brit who for good measure was also anti-American; Mick, a burned-out Australian Joseph Campbell-devotee who got his job only because he was an old college chum of Nigel’s. During my orientation, Mr. Yang hadn’t mentioned an opening ceremony or that I would have to make a little speech. Going last, however, had it privileges, so after I heard everyone else’s spiels about broadening horizons and having fun, I said that my class will the stress-free one, claps from the students, and we would have fun exploring elements of each other’s cultures.
After the intros, we left the auditorium and had an hour’s break before our first class, and as we walked out, Nigel caught up to me. “Calvert, you know what you must do in your first class is roll up your sleeves and tell the students, ‘I’m not supposed to be showing these, but here are my tattoos.’”
“And why exactly would I want to do that?”
“Let these buggers know they can’t push you around.”
“How’d you know I have tattoos?” I asked.
“There are no secrets in Korea.”
I have fourteen tattoos. I know that sounds like a lot to keep hidden, but I did it with slacks and long-sleeve shirts. Of course, gesturing as I lectured, sometimes a sleeve would pull up and the students got a momentary flash of ink. On my forearms, inner and outer, I have a wizard presiding over a cloud and a stack of skulls; in black ink the profile of an Indian chief with a war bonnet; a rose entangled in a black spider web. But the only time any Koreans saw all of my tattoos were in the steam room in town, and on my left shoulder I had a yin-yang with dragons encircling it, and with the yin-yang being the center piece of the South Korean flag, the usual stares turned into spoken and gestured compliments.
Part of our job as teachers was to broaden our students’ worldviews, bring the West to the Hermit Kingdom. Koreans thought people with tattoos were evil and mean—gangsters of the worst sort—so a few weeks later when Nigel approached me with the idea of being in one of the end of the session’s plays that the students put on, I leapt at the chance. Only, Nigel in his infinite lack of wisdom, designed a play for my homeroom class about high school hooligans and wanted me to be in it.
“How is that dispelling myths and opening our students’ worlds?” I asked in the office just before lunch.
“You will be exposing them to something they have never seen before.”
“They’ve seen tattoos.”
“In movies, not in person.”
“And when they’ve seen tattoos, they’ve always been on bad guys. Let me be a good guy.”
“Impossible. The parts are written and we’ve been rehearsing for three weeks. It would be impossible to re-write your character at this late date.”
“Then take my character out,” I said.
“Now, now, Calvert. That would depress the students. They are so looking forward to you being on stage with them.”
“Why are you painting me into a corner, Nigel?”
“I’m only trying to get you involved. You know,” his voice lowered and he leaned in—smelling sour, “the students think you are too uptight. This would be a good way to show them your lighter side.”
Uptight? Me? I was nervous working with foreign students, especially since they were older too. And in Korean culture, if you are young, you have no authority. So why would these older teachers, many who had been working for a decade or more, listen to a pre-thirty-year-old American writer?
The lunch bell rang, mercifully ending our conversation. The cafeteria, like a marble-floored cave, was in the basement of the dorm. Luckily Nigel abhorred the cafeteria’s food and followed a strict macrobiotic diet and often returned home, joined by Mic, for lunch. Lunch was at twelve o’clock, and Marcia and I were always the first ones in line and we’d share a table. Marcia was a tall, svelte woman with long straight dark hair and watery azure eyes and powder-pale skin. She was older, from the hippie generation, and I pictured her making an enchanting flower child. Loneliness and paranoia were setting in on me at different stages, so it was always good to talk with Marcia at lunch.
She had a peculiar appetite; she craved carbs and ate rice by the pile, and the rice had to be generously coated with salt. She stayed away from the kimchee and the more exotic cuts of meat as well as pork and beef. Chicken she liked, and sweet potatoes too. The first couple of weeks we made polite conversation, and I asked questions about the school, students, life in South Korea, and where should I visit on my time off. After this warming up period, Marcia began speaking more frankly.
“I’ve taught overseas for almost thirty years. From the Persian Gulf to the South Pacific, and this is the worst place I’ve ever worked.” She spooned a bite of rice, patted the corner of her mouth, and continued: “I didn’t want to say anything to you earlier. I didn’t want to spoil you on the place, but I think you’ve been here long enough to see the truth about this place and the people.”
Marcia looked me in the eye and spoke with conviction and a self-confidence that came from working out of her home country and living alone and holding her own in cultures that did not make life easy for a woman.
“Nigel said the students think I’m uptight,” I said. “Have you heard anything?”
“No. The students speak so much Korean among themselves, and I can understand some of it, but I don’t catch everything. Calvert, don’t put much stock in what Nigel says. He talks to manipulate. I know he’s nervous that they brought you in.”
“Why? We don’t even teach the same area.”
“But your competition.”
“For what? I don’t want to compete with him.”
“But he competes with everyone,” Marcia said. “He loves control, power, and any infinitesimal amount he can wield, he will.” Marcia’s eyes widened and she looked over my shoulder. “Speak of the devil.”
I turned and saw Nigel holding the cafeteria door open for Mr. Cho. Behind Mr. Cho marched the supervisors, who never came to lunch until Mr. Cho led the way.
“Nigel came just to brown nose,” Marcia said. “His head is so far up Cho’s ass.”
Bringing up the rear was lanky Mic who moved with disgust for effort. Mr. Cho played the diplomat and kindly grandfather role and motioned for Nigel and Mic to go ahead of him. The supervisors wouldn’t dare do such a thing, but Nigel and Mic, after exaggerated protests, took up their plates and went down the buffet line.
They waited at the buffet table until Mr. Cho fixed his plate, then they walked, led by Mr. Cho, to his private table. Walking by us, Nigel stopped, nodded to Marcia, and said to me: “We’ve cut your lines, Calvert. The pressure to memorize lines is removed. All you will have to do is stand on stage for a few seconds in the opening, then you walk off and take a seat in the audience.” He smiled and arched his eyebrows twice and was off to join Mr. Cho and the rest.
“What was that all about?” Marcia asked.
“Nigel wants me to be in a play.”
“You better watch him, Calvert. He loves to make fun of people with his plays.” She took a bite of her rice and leaned toward me and spoke without moving her mouth. “After lunch, come to my classroom. We can talk there.” She cut her eyes at Nigel and Mic with the Koreans just two tables over. Whatever she had to tell me had to be good if she didn’t want any of them hearing it.
Lunch lasted ninety minutes and at one o’clock I knocked on Marcia’s classroom door. She unlocked it and let me in. Her classroom was sandwiched between Mic’s and Nigel’s, and she spoke in a stage whisper. “They are still down in the office kissing up to Cho,” Marcia said, “but still talk softly. They are so damn sneaky.”
“Mic and Nigel?”
“The very snakes. I’ve been here two years and they’ve been trying to get rid of me since the day I arrived. They think they run the school, and since they’re the two oldest male instructors, the Koreans listen to them.” Marcia stroked her nose and took a deep breath, deciding how far she should go telling me info. “Your cut in salary…”
When Mr. Yang gave me my phone interview, he quoted me a salary of 2.5 million won per month—don’t get too impressed, that’s $1,500. After I’d signed the contract and mailed it back to him, he called again, this time saying he can only pay me 2.2. because I’d only been teaching three years. “We must be fair to other teacher who have many experience.”
I didn’t like it, but I was signed, had turned down a full-time position where I received my Master’s, and I needed to break up with the woman I was living with.
“Why are you telling me?”
“Nigel asked you to be in a play, so I thought you needed to know how the land lies here.”
“He wants me to play a hoodlum,” I said, “but mainly he wants me to show my tattoos on stage.”
“Do not do that!” Marcia’s voice rose uncontrollably; she covered her mouth with her hand and pulled me to the center of her classroom, where she resumed whispering. “If
you show your tattoos, the students will lose respect for you, and worst of all you will be flying in Cho’s face. There’s no way he could have a positive response to that.”
“What do you think he’d do to me?”
“He could end your contract and send you home,” Marcia cracked a smile and said, “which isn’t a completely bad thing. But even if he didn’t do that, you’d be on his bad side, and you wouldn’t want to be on his bad side for your year here.”
That session all the classes consisted of middle-school teachers, except mine, who were older burned out high school teachers and intimidated me with the scowls they’d perfected for their students. The older teachers did not see their month at the Language Institute as a time for learning, but as a mini-vacation from their work and school; so they saw nothing wrong with nightly drinking binges and blowing off class work. I never assigned homework, but I did want them to be attentive and active in class. But after three weeks of the session, I realized that simply keeping them awake would be a success. Not the studious Asian students I expected.
Studious or not, we were down to our final week of the session, the play was in two days, and I needed to talk to them. It was the first class on Monday, and they were beat from traveling home for the weekend and then making it back here in time for class.
“How many of you know that I have tattoos?”
This woke them and grabbed their attention.
Each class had a leader who was the spokesperson for them, and this person was chosen, in keeping with Korean culture, by age and gender, not English ability. So generally, the spokesperson was the oldest male in the class, and for my homeroom this meant James Dean—his English name. James was tall and skinny with a hard-wrinkled face that bore witness to his love of cigarettes and drink. His English was limited but solid, and he had that uncanny un-Korean knack of timing and humor in English. All eyes were on James and many of the female students, half the class, looked down and faintly smiled. Why they smiled, I wasn’t sure; it could have been embarrassment by my question or giddy anticipation of James’s answer.
“We all know,” James said. “All students know. But we are Korean, so we not say anything.”
The giddy tension erupted in laughter.
“What do you think about one of your teachers having tattoos?” I said.
“We want to know what gang you are in,” James said.
This time milder laughing and the eyes were turned on me.
“I’m not in any gang, and most people in the West who have tattoos are not in a gang.”
Nodding and ahhing from the students. They nodded and ahhed often, so I couldn’t tell if they understood or if they were simply going through the motions.
“I hear that I play a character in your play.”
More smiles; the nodding intensified.
“We type of character do I play?”
“You are a bad man,” James said.
“Am I in a gang?”
“Yes,” was the communal answer, and then James said: “You are to show your tattoos.”
“Considering what I just told you about people who have tattoos in the West, does that seem right for my character?”
No nods, no ahs.
I waited a few minutes, but realized I was not getting an answer, so I said: “That’s why I have asked Nigel to take me out of the play.”
“Mr. Calvert,” Sky, one of the female students, spoke. “You must be in the play with us. Your character is very important.”
“But don’t you see how my character is simply continuing a stereotype?”
Some mutterings and explanations of the word ‘stereotype’ in Korean from the female students to the males.
Sky continued: “You do not want to be in our play because it will make people with tattoos look bad?”
“Exactly,” I said. “I want to be in your play, but I do not want to play a flat character.” I quickly realized they wouldn’t know that literary term. “If I played a Korean character, for instance, I would not want to only show the bad side of Koreans through my character.”
Mutterings in Korean shot around the U-shaped desks formation.
James cleared his throat. “We understand how you think and why you not want be that character. We still want you in our play.”
“As that character?”
“We change your character, Mr. Calvert.” Smiles from all.
And I thought the issue was settled, but the next day in the hallway before classes began…
“Calvert! What’s the bloody idea of sabotaging my productions?”
“What in the name of the Queen and paranoia are you talking about?”
“How dare you have the students come and tell me, the director, that they are changing the lines and characters that I helped them to create because you do not want to further a stereotype.”
“First of all, calm down, old sport.” A little Gatsby-Oxford lingo for Nigel. “Secondly, I didn’t tell the students to change the character. They came to that decision themselves.”
“With your guidance, undoubtedly.”
“Some of us need guidance.”
“I will not listen to your cheeky insolence, and I will not, I repeat, will not change your character.”
“Then I will not, I repeat, will not be in your damn play!”
Nigel avoided me for the rest of the day, and I again thought the issued was settled, until that night after dinner Sky and James Dean knocked on my door.
“Excuse us for bothering you, Mr. Calvert,” James said.
“But we must speak with you,” Sky said. “Very important.”
I smelled Nigel’s nefarious influence, but I went ahead and invited them in.
“No, thank you,” Sky said. “It is ok you walk outside with us?”
I agreed and wondered, since James was the class leader, why Sky was here too? I deduced two reasons: her English was stronger, and it’s always more difficult for a man to tell a woman No, for I figured they were here to get me back in the play. And I had to admit, Nigel had me in a rough spot: say no to the students and I’m the bad guy; say yes and I play his game. Screwed one way and fucked the other.
“Mr. Nigel,” James began after swapping looks with Sky, “say you not want be in play with us.”
“I want to be in your play. I just don’t want to have to show my tattoos.”
Sky countered with: “Mr. Nigel says it too late to change your character.”
“But my character can’t be pivotal to the play. I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt your play if my character were taken out.”
Hissing in unison and tilted heads—the stressed Korean reaction.
“You are my homeroom class,” I said. “You’re special to me. My first class in Korea, and I want to be in your play. I will play the character as he is, but I will not show my tattoos…out of respect for Mr. Cho and your culture. I would not want the other classes thinking badly of your class because I showed my tattoos in your play.”
No hissing or tilted heads.
“Is that good?” I asked.
A quick conversing in Korean, and James said: “That good.”
The play I was in was the last one of the night. Nigel arranged it that way so as to ensure that everyone, especially Mr. Cho, would be shocked. The plays were performed in one night, the last Thursday of the session, then the students returned home Friday afternoon after a closing ceremony, and we had the weekend free until another batch of teachers arrived on Monday.
Marcia and I sat together on the front row, where the foreign teachers were instructed by Nigel and the Korean supervisors to sit. Mic worked the curtain and light for Nigel. Surprisingly, Mr. Cho was the most reluctant to attend. Did he know of Nigel’s plan to display my tattoos in his face? I thought so, until Marcia informed me that Mr. Cho sometimes didn’t attend the plays, and when he did it is always under a mild form of protestation. Being the leader of the school, I expected him to be supportive of the students’ work and anxious to see them perform in English, but because he was the leader of the school, he deemed it beneath him to watch these productions.
There were eight plays; four were performed before an intermission and then the last four were put on. Mr. Cho was absent for the first four and he was not seen during intermission—at which time in the hallway we were given banana flavored milk and stale cinnamon cakes—and when we returned to the auditorium, still no Mr. Cho. Nigel wasn’t having this. He announced from the stage that the second half of the performances would not be performed until Mr. Cho arrived. This sent a murmur through the crowd and Mr. Kim walked to the stage and whispered in Nigel’s ear.
“I don’t care!” Nigel said and gestured wildly. “You go get him right now, or we move the plays to his room.”
Mr. Kim hissed, tilted his head, and Nigel—in strong colonial fashion—ordered him on his way. Mr. Kim was obviously embarrassed, being dressed down in front of the students and as well as the other supervisors, but he did as Nigel ordered. Like me, Mr. Cho also had a room in the dormitory. Actually, he had two adjoining rooms: an anteroom for entertaining, and a bedroom. Naturally, his rooms were the largest.
Nigel called one of the men who had already performed to the stage and had him lead the auditorium in Korean songs, and while this placated the crowd, Nigel scurried next door to the empty classroom that served as the dressing room and worked with the performers who were in the next play.
I leaned toward Marcia and asked: “Is all this for me?”
“Not all of it. With Nigel’s ego, he would have still made a scene and demanded that Mr. Cho attend. But you’re correct in your thinking: he wants Cho here for your tattoos.”
“But I’m not showing them.”
“Does Nigel know this?”
“He should. I told the students.”
“Nigel’s megalomania won’t allow him to believe that you will disobey him.”
“Well he’s in…”
The singing abruptly ceased and Mr. Cho, dressed in a silk silver and black traditional Korean shirt and pants that looked like comfortable pajamas, entered. Nigel popped up behind him. “So glad you graced us with your presence, Mr. Cho. I have a seat reserved for you.” Nigel placed his hand in the small of Mr. Cho’s back and began to direct him to center aisle seat on the front row.
“I have my own seat. Thank you, Mr. Nigel.” Mr. Cho walked to the back of the auditorium and before sitting, he announced: “You may begin the play, Mr. Nigel.”
The plays continued and halfway through the penultimate one I was tapped on the shoulder by James Dean who asked me to follow him. He led me to the makeshift dressing room and my homeroom students were made up to look like American teenagers: torn jeans, baseball caps on backwards, sunglasses on their faces and heads, flannel shirts unbuttoned over white t-shirts. Sky was the only one dressed like an adult: a floral blue dress, heels, and granny-glasses—she was the teacher in the play.
“Y’all look great,” I said.
Thanks was said in unison, and the hand ringing was also communal. They were nervous, and so was I. I didn’t know if it was because I was in and out of the cast, or if it was by Nigel’s design, but I had never rehearsed with them. All I knew was that I was a bad guy without lines who was to be on the stage momentarily in the opening of the play and then exit the stage and take a seat. Yep, I do believe this was Nigel’s design.
The pock-faced limey devil entered the dressing room and commanded: “Calvert, roll up your sleeves.”
“For your character.” Nigel was all smiles and sweet toned in front of the students.
“Didn’t you get the memo? I’m not showing my tattoos.”
“You must, Calvert.” He swept his arm toward the students. “Tell Mr. Calvert he must show his tattoos for his character to be effective.”
I waited to see if James or Sky would speak up for me. Deep down I knew they couldn’t, but it would have been nice. I snatched Nigel by the arm and pulled him close.
“I’ll be in the play, not for you; for my students. But if you want Mr. Cho to see tattoos, get some on your body, and show him.”
“All right, Calvert. You don’t have to show your tattoos.”
That should have ended it, but once we were backstage and about to raise the curtain, Nigel motioned for me to roll up my sleeves.
“Ain’t happening,” I said, and he smiled nervously.
My character was the cohort of the class delinquent played by James. When the curtain rose, he and I were the students who would take a seat at their desks, and Sky called James out and asked him who his friend was. That was my cue to stomp to the edge of the stage and take an imposing pose. I flared my arms, swung my shoulders, and for good measure snarled. The crowd laughed and the students saw that I wasn’t uptight; Mr. Cho didn’t lose face, I kept my job, and Nigel didn’t get his way.
It was an excellent night of theater.