The following is an excerpt from a memoir about teaching ESL in South Korea.
Everyone has their own challenges adjusting to life abroad. The Korean education system includes a barrage of placement tests to determine one’s reputation. The purpose and criteria of which are not always clear. The ultimate significance of these tests are illusive. But the stress is real.
One such early test for incoming ESL teachers were the ‘new’ hard mattresses. Myself and many others shared the common experience of a spate of bizarre nightmares, which was caused by general anxiety, jetlag, or mostly likely the uncomfortable sleeping situation.
The first real test arrives as a swarm of mosquitos.
Mogis. That’s the Korean word for them. Killing should not feel this good. I would have let them suck my blood all night if not for the buzzing. Every night around two a.m., I would go to bed and shut off the light, only to be confronted with the zzzz’s of one or more mogis assaulting my ears. I would jump up out of bed and try to find the culprits.
In the darkness it was nearly impossible, so I would turn the light back on, search the bedroom for ten minutes, then give up and try to go back to sleep. A few minutes later, I’d hear the zzzzzz again, turn the light on, prowl around, give up, try to go back to sleep. This pattern repeated until daybreak. Even if the windows were tightly closed, the mogis found a way in. I would wake up with little itchy bites all over my arms.
“I’ve gotten so good at killing them in my sleep,” my coworker Alice lamented, “that I wake up with blood on my hands.”
It’s our own blood too. Over time I became adept at giving the mosquitos “the clap.” After enough practice, I could clap them dead in my sleep. Consider that examination passed.
But the mogis were just a prelude to more disturbing intrusions. One month in, I was startled awake by a spate of strange dreams instigated by strange noises and stranger visitors. I would often wake up to hear so many weird and wonderful things: roving food trucks with built-in bullhorns blaring about either a nuclear strike from the north or a sale on mandarin oranges. Or maybe I’d hear an announcement, possibly from the landlord, through a speaker in the apartment itself. He’d blather on in Korean for five minutes and then wish a thank you, “gahamsamnida,” though I rarely felt thankful for the intrusion. Or I’d hear a knock on my door and two Korean men in suits would be waiting outside, hoping to teach me the saving value of Jesus Christ. That test was easy. I said “no thanks” and slammed the door in their face.
The next visitors were more persistent. Poor sleep induced the first waking dream that I’d remembered since I was seven. I woke up to find a blond woman sitting on the edge of my bed, taunting me. Outside, people were dancing on the balcony.
It took about ten seconds for the beautiful woman to fade away and the conscious realm to coalesce. However, the balcony dancers remained, even after I blinked and pinched myself. Slowly, the silhouettes morphed into construction workers. There was also the shape of a bottle. I checked my alarm: 8:15 in the morning.
An important detail: I lived on the eighth floor.
The silhouettes didn’t go away. In fact, when I dressed and went over to the window to pull back the curtains, I saw actual people, wearing hard hats, socializing and having a gay old time. They were telling jokes and shooting the breeze. One of the workers smiled at me and shook my hand.
“Why don’t you join us, Aaron?” he might have said in Korean.
“The party doesn’t start for another twelve hours. I’m in bed for the next five, thank you very much,” I might have replied.
There was a bucket of paint on the floor, and the construction workers held brushes in their hands. Apparently my balcony was getting a surprise makeover, unsolicited but taken with some seriousness. But not too much, since there was some soju involved.
I couldn’t figure out how they even got up there until I was down the stairs and saw the platform rig. Now awake and fuming, I took my laptop and stormed down the street, ready to blog about this outrageous violation of my space. Where could I even go? The only place to seethe over a cup of coffee and sugary garlic bread was Paris Baguette. Or Tous les Jours. Or Dunkin Donuts. Or that place other place with no name on art street. Okay, so there were a few places to choose from. That doesn’t make up for all the seething, though.
Maybe that’s why I failed the final test.
The last visitor arrived a different morning, on a rare occasion when I had awakened before eleven. I was taking care of the usual things: a so-called breakfast, a shower in cold water because I was afraid to ask for help from my bosses, and laundry which didn’t work because I was afraid to ask for help interpreting the Korean-marked buttons. I was undressed and happy to be so, when someone started knocking at my door. A woman shouted.
“Hold on!” I said, rushing to the main hall to make sure the door was locked. “I’m not wearing anything!”
But before I could get to the wardrobe, the door burst open and the maid appeared. She got a full-frontal view of my manhood, then made a noise and jumped back. I dashed into the other room to grab some boxers or a towel.
I half-closed my bedroom and peeked out from behind the sliding door as she walked around, her eyes still wide with shock, and proceeded to inspect the room with what looked like a Geiger counter. Was she checking my apartment for radioactivity? About ten seconds later, the door closed and she was gone.
Another phantasm? If only. I was doubly spooked by the free access to my apartment and the strange behavior once she was inside.
Yeosuk, my boss, would often dismiss things as “cultural differences.” It was his favorite phrase and it quickly became a hagwon motif.
When I mentioned to him about the lady, he looked puzzled, started to say something, and then dropped the subject. Later it was explained to me by a foreigner that there are ‘pesticide ladies’ who come in and spray apartments, but only, it seemed, after the mogis had already been all clapped to death. If this task of squirting pesticide at the wall was as useless and awkward as it seemed, then the only explanation was this: they, too, were sent to test me. But by whom? And for what? Why? I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just let me rest. Unless…unless it was to prepare me for another test. An even greater threat.
I asked my tarot deck.
The answer? Death. Inverted.
How melodramatic, I thought. The volcano’s not even active. And then I tried to go back to sleep.
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