Jake Stetson stared blankly at the pile of reports on the table of his Jangsan studio apartment and sighed. Wearily, he opened the first book:
“Teacher is stupid and me is kill Teacher”
Typical, he thought, and was just about to score out the “is” when he remembered the most recent communiqué from the Ministry of Education; “Is,” it said, was now an acceptable marker for either past, present or future tense, (“I” had surrendered a long time ago.) Jake blithely wondered whether this particular entry was a confession or a threat but left the sentence untouched. Looking out the window onto the greying expanse of Jangsan Old Town, Jake allowed himself a rare moment’s contemplation. Where, he thought, did it all go wrong?
There’d been struggles in the past, but Jake had always thought the Foreigners had won. None of these were clearer in Jake’s mind than the push for citizenship that had galvanised the foreign community in the 20s and resulted in the Universal Franchise Act of 2028. Since then his stake in society had grown while his pay packet had shrunk; the “price of dignity” he’d once convinced a room full of foreigners in the run up to the Bill. Looking around the sparse studio apartment he’d rented for the past decade, he wondered now whether they’d gotten their moneys worth.
When he had arrived in Korea things had been different. In those days people still stared at you when you walked down the street, now Jake reckoned they just looked through you. Work back then had been a joke too. Before ME centralised Hagwon curriculum and management, foreign teachers could almost get away with murder. Gone were the days when a teacher could slump into class still reeking of the night before and fling a worksheet at the students. Now that everything was rigorously standardised, monitored and evaluated, it had gotten so you couldn’t blow your nose in a Hagwon without someone reporting it.
Oh but how he had ranted and raved back then! The pointing, the misunderstandings, the disorganisation – the slightest thing would set him off! Many times he felt like packing it all in and heading home to some sort of normality. But still Jake remained. The truth was, back then Jake felt like he was a pioneer with the world at his feet, a renegade who’d had had enough of society and checked out. He’d found a place where he could live like a king and under his own set of rules. Looking back, Jake realised he’d been something of an idealist.
“Use this place before it uses you” someone had once told him. At the time he’d dismissed it as cynical, but now the words kept coming back more and more. He’d spent the last four decades with his shoulder to a wheel that had been spinning in the opposite direction and his fire was gone. He was beginning to think he might just have wasted it on the wrong thing.
Jake’s eyes wandered over the smoggy Busan skyline. Since the time he’d lived there that same skyline had danced up and down like the bars on an old fashioned graphic equaliser, and still showed no signs of reaching any state of permanence. It was like the city itself was mocking his own entrenchment and Jake wasn’t sure he could live through another reinvention. Although he occasionally thought about going home, there was no guarantee he would get a job and it seemed pointless to return at a time when people were clambering over each other to get away. If the East was the “new West,” where did that leave someone like him?
Perhaps, Jake thought, it was time to teach somewhere new. Africa was opening up in ways he never could have imagined in his youth and seemed like the perfect place to recapture some of the frontier spirit. Sure, it might be a little hard at first but he had moved before and made it work, why shouldn’t he be able to do it again?
So, as he had done every couple of years for the last decade or so, Jake opened up a clean page in his notepad, swapped the reports for the heavy book on top of the wardrobe and opened it up at the first page.
Now, he thought, if I can only get my Chinese up to scratch.