Her Midnight Run, My Empathy
My best friend’s replacement pulled an infamous “midnight run” last weekend.
Her escape wasn’t discovered until, presumably, she was on a plane bound for her home in Australia. Our only indication of this, a presumably-hastily-written email to her recruiter. A “mea culpa” of sorts. Oops.
If we were to write an obituary for her Korean death, it could read: You were only 23, with so much left to see, so much left to do. Or: what was your name again?
She was here such a short time that perhaps only one photo, taken during my friend’s goodbye dinner, is the only evidence this girl ever set foot in this country. Well, that and her suitcase, which she left in the apartment, as well as some ramyeon wrappers and empty soda bottles.
The story could easily end there. Some kid who never worked a day in her life takes a chance teaching in a foreign country, freaks out and bails before she even teaches her first class. But I experienced a similar story almost 10 years ago.
It was hearing about the abandoned suitcase and food debris that did it for me. They tell a very sad story, one of someone feeling impossibly hopeless and impossibly alone.
Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 24, 2005, my debris were hundreds of smoked cigarettes. Dunhills, mostly, snubbed out in overflowing ashtrays, in cups, on plates. There were no food wrappers since I barely ate, spending most of my time with expensive collect calls to a girl I broke up with to come here (this is pre-Skype and Facebook, after all). Hopelessness does wonders to one’s physique.
Instead of attending a dinner for the outgoing teacher, then trudging up a very uncomfortable hill toward a very unflattering apartment on the Green line in Busan, my outgoing teacher collected me from a bus depot in Jinju, then brought me back to a significantly nicer place. It didn’t matter if the place was nice. Within an hour, I asked her if she would consider changing her mind.
There is nothing anyone can say when you’ve lost all hope that will change your mind. I thought then I was making excuses. I know now that wasn’t true.
The anxiety may seem unnecessary when viewed from outside. Sticking it out might seem a better option. But as expensive as it is, for her and for the company she just fucked over, going home was the only thing she could do. It is a conclusion one can only justify, I think, if you have gone through that hell on earth yourself.
And, believe me, it is hell on earth. It’s your mother dropping dead in the audience for your high school school play. It’s being told you have stage four cancer and only a couple months to live. It’s being forced to admit, after living with a certain set of beliefs for the entirety of your life, it all was a lie. It’s moving your life to another country, only to realize once you’ve arrived that you just can’t hack it.
But, there is growth to be gained living Winston Churchill’s quotation about going through hell: Keep going. In 2005, I at least went far enough to find a replacement before I gave my school back its airfare, bought another ticket and touched down at Newark Airport just in time for Christmas. I took two suitcases home but a third stayed behind. Maybe she did that, too. I still miss that pea-coat.
Sticking it out just a little might have put enough of a flavor for this country in my mouth and in my mind that time could only marinate to a point I’d eventually try again. In 2005 I did not know about dweji gukbap or jjimjillbangs but I did know about gimbap and K-Pop. There isn’t much one can learn about a country and a culture in just a few days consumed with thoughts about getting the hell out of there.
Even so, in time she might consider trying this again, too. If the empathy I feel for what she must have gone through is accurate, I can take the next leap and contemplate her thoughts about this unfinished business, a monster that can weigh on the brain even heavier than a monster hiding under the bed, in the closet, behind the door or in a classroom full of curious Korean children. It brought me back three times.
Recently, a friend I made during that first 40 days in Jinju almost a decade ago contacted me to ask if I knew of any job openings in Korea for next year. I asked him if he was serious. In the time since we’ve seen each other on this side of the world, he has had a fairly successful career in New Zealand as both a voice and television actor. He’s married, with several children. Yet, he said he also still thought from time to time about the “unfinished business” he left in Korea in December 2005. No one likes to admit they’re still scared of the boogeyman.
JPDdoesROK is a former news editor/writer in New Jersey, USA, who served a one-year tour of duty in Dadaepo/Jangnim, Saha-gu, Busan from February 2013 to February 2014. He is now a teacher in Gimhae.