"So tell me a story," I heard Jack Zee say as I opened my eyes. "Tell me your best lunatic, perverted, crazy, drunk-ass story. Because I can top it."
He was leaning into my personal space, his brow twitching as rivulets of sweat rolled from crease to crease, bouncing past freckles like pinballs past bumpers. Jack Zee! He was tall and bug-eyed, and there was something inside of him that ran too fast, a human tape recorder broken in fast forward. He was a godawful sight for a respectable gal like me to wake up to, and did that mean I'd fallen asleep again?
I looked around: we were on a subway car pulling into Pusandae Station. Shit, I thought. I was still on the other side of the world, still living in a city of five million people shoehorned into a narrow coastal valley, and it seemed plausible that a million of them were on the train with us as that very moment.
"Drunk-ass?" I said to Jack. "What a word! Is that in the dictionary?"
"Fuck that," Zee said, "We can talk grammar later. Right now I demand a story."
"Demand? That's a big word."
"Okay, fine. Sally, tell me a story, please. I can't take it any more." He looked dead serious for once. We were friends, taught at the same English language cram school. But I didn't really know him very well. He could be sort of shallow in the way that guys are when they act tough, but that didn't bother me: I'd grown up with two older brothers who still lived back in Ohio. It was the heat, I thought, that was getting to him. It was so damn hot. He was liable to go off the deep end, and with that nuclear personality of his, he was a Chernobyl waiting to happen.
"Okay," I said, as the subway car slowed. "Once upon a time in a country far, far away, there lived bunch of American college graduates who had majored in English. Except there weren't any jobs for people with that major."
"Somehow I think I've heard this one," said Jack. "But do go on. What did these unfortunate souls do?"
"Well, they would have joined the Peace Corp, except that there was no way to defer their credit card bills. And the people in my story lived at home in the basement and would rather have eaten shit than take a job in the mall. And if you weren't getting any action because your boyfriend was living at home too, well, an ad in the paper to teach English in Korea might start to look pretty good." I took a deep breath. "And then the clincher was the monk who never sleeps."
"The Monk?" Jack said. "Well of course the Monk never sleeps. I mean, except on holidays, when all the bars close."
"No, not that Monk. The agent who recruited me told me about how I could go visit monasteries in my free time. He totally sold me on coming to Korea. And the kicker was some monk who never sleeps. He just enters some advanced state of meditation. My agent promised to introduce me to him."
"Sally," Jack said as we left the station, "you got taken. I mean, when have you ever been to a monastery?"
The answer, of course, was never. I worked all the time. And when I was off, I went straight away to the Monk-the bar-for a drink.
Outside, the streets of Pusandae were dark and narrow and filled with trash. But there was a beauty to them as well, a beauty that arose not out of orderliness, but rather energy and motion. Neon signs advertised for pool halls, pharmacies, nightclubs, love hotels. Steam rose from trays of dumplings arrayed out front of the street-side diners, and there was a grainy sootiness to the air that made the lights of the city even brighter, trapping all the energy at street level, letting not even a single photon escape.
"Now here's a story," began Jack, plunging into the street. "My first morning here, I woke up to my principal leaning over me. He had let himself into my bedroom without so much as a knock and announced I was late for work. Didn't ask how my flight over was or any of that."
A group of boys and girls were standing around as we pushed by. Sweat glistened on their faces: it was as hot outside as it had been on the subway.
"Hey! Fucking Americans!" one of the boys called out, "maybe you go home now, okay?" The girls giggled and one of the boys flipped us off. A common occurrence, it barely registered.
"So for three months I'm in Ulsan," Jack said, "and it's just me and my director and his wife and pretty soon I realize that I'm the only teacher. I'm teaching out of an office underneath their apartment, and they feed me all my meals and ask questions when I leave the house. I ask them how to have a good time in Ulsan, and they tell me that Ulsan is full of good Christians-the wife is a born again, you see. Then she goes off to visit her mother and my director grabs me and says, 'Mr. Zee, you work very hard. Maybe you need relax?' And I say, yeah, maybe I need relax."
Jack was talking full speed now, oblivious to everything. We passed a man in a black suit crumpled in the gutter, reeking of booze and vomit, but Jack neatly sidestepped him. A taxi roared by, honking at the drunk, but Jack didn't so much as alter a syllable.
"I honestly thought it was a coffee shop he'd taken me to, until the waitress sat down in his lap. Then she sat in mine, but she was frozen stiff. It was so weird-she was terrified of me. I imagine she'd heard that all foreigners have AIDS. Lots of people believe that, you know. She was thinking, am I going to have to do it with this Yankee? And all I could think was, my principal's taken me to a goddamn brothel! But the whole point is that later I let it slip to my principal's wife that he frequented whorehouses when she was out of town. Next thing I knew, she'd divorced him, the institute folded, and I was free to move to here!"
At that moment, however, we came into view of the Monk's glowing blue sign, and Jack indulged in a rare pause. The sign read:
Thelonious Monk Club
Live Jass and Cock-Tales!
You never knew if the Monk was happening or not until you got there and pulled back the black curtain that hung over the door. It was only on nights when the whole Western crowd met spontaneously at the Monk that you ever got to see other Americans. The rest of the time you were immersed up to your eyeballs in the ocean of Korea, but it wasn't just an issue of sink or swim. You needed gills! And certainly it didn't hurt to drink like a fish.
We were met at the door by Sung-Whan, the owner. He was carrying several cases of beer he'd bought around the corner at a Happy Mart, and we held the door open for him as he slipped behind the curtain. Sung-Whan was growing his hair out long. He could pull it back now into a ponytail and he was one of only a dozen men in the whole city who had hair that long. He was also a musician and a true freak. He didn't even live with his family, even though he wasn't married, and he was always going on about the bands he was going to book.
"Monk is the most famous jazz club in Asia," he'd told me once, hinting Pat Mentheny was going to come play a show next time he was in Korea. But in fact no one ever played there except the house band. But Whan had a giant jazz collection on CD and never allowed even a measure of pop music to be played over his speakers. Late at night when the place was wall-to-wall, he would clear away the tables so that people could dance, but this would only happen when he'd been drinking as well and the momentum was heavy. He'd be out dancing and a crowd of customers would be behind the bar serving drinks and taking the money. Or else he'd be trying to get everyone back out from behind the bar, but either way he never allowed anything but good pure jazz to be played at the Monk.
We followed Sung Whan through a small hallway of darkness and velvet but we could already hear the house band. And it was hot in there as well, hothouse hot, Mayan ruins and headhunter hot. I could feel the workweek and life in Korea slipping to the ground like so much dirty laundry.
"Stepping into the Monk is like putting on a velvet smoking jacket," I said.
"Only if you bought it second hand and it's got puke stains on it," said Jack, shouting over the noise, "but hey, I'd be wearing it all the same. It's better than a whorehouse in Ulsan."
Inside it was a tidal wave. Americans were all over the room, overrunning the chairs and leaving only the tables high and dry in little archipelagos. The men were dressed in jeans, leather jackets, turtlenecks. The women wore their hair long and straight, their shirts cut low, and their make-up applied in only the faintest dabs. There were pleading calls for beer and whiskey and even makoli, the local rice wine, and strands of cigarette smoke filled the air in curling peacock plumes. At the head of this crowd was Big Ed, who taught at the OxFun Kid's Academy. He had undoubtedly been the first through the curtain that evening, and upon seeing me, he climbed on top of a table and addressed the clientele in a booming voice. Even the band stopped playing.
"First of all, I want to make it perfectly clear to everyone here that, yes, I was in fact, and have in fact been tonight, in a state of most shameful public nakedness" Loud cheers greeted this. "Hey, hey!" he went on, "Hey, wait, because...hey, shut up and listen for a second, okay," and it finally quieted down.
"Let's just say it was hot and there was a fountain, and I wasn't going to let the fact that it was in the middle of a shopping mall stop me. But I have to make it known, you see, that besides being shamelessly naked...," everyone roared again, but Ed shouted over the top of them, "that besides being naked, as of tonight, that lovely lass Sally has been in Korea for two years! Two fucking years! That's an entire contract! And to mark this point of long..." He stopped. "Fuck! What's the word?" Then he remembered: "Of longevity, yeah. So to mark this point of longevity, we're not going to stop drinking tonight until every last one of us is passed-out in a puddle of puke!" And with that, Ed unbuttoned his pants in a single, swift motion, dropped them down, and stepped out of them entirely. Wearing only his shirt and boxers, he took a bow amid applause and catcalls. He was, as his name indicated, a big guy, with an ample tummy that now rolled over the waistband of his exposed underwear. He wore thick glasses with black frames that made his eyes look too small for his head, but there was no mistaking the intelligence behind them. His was like the engine of an Italian sports car stuck inside the body of a Ford pickup. Worse, his sense of morality was like one of those temporary spare tires that you find nowadays in the trunks of most cars-which is to say, you wouldn't want to travel very far on it.
"Edward," someone shouted, "put your pants on before I spank you!"
"Is that a dare or a promise," he said. Someone tipped over the table he was standing on, and he was forthrightly held down. Someone did indeed start spanking him and a line quickly formed, with people waiting their turn. He got whacked pretty good before finally managing to escape. "Grab him again," someone shouted. "Let's rape him!" added someone else. Peals of laughter followed.
"Maybe it's time for a whiskey," I said to Jack. The room was very crowded, but we'd finally made our way to the bar.
"What the fuck was that?" asked a blonde woman next to me. I hadn't really noticed before, and it took a moment to realize she was talking to us. An obvious Newbie, she was waiting for an answer.
"Two whiskeys it is," Jack said. But Sung Whan was swamped with orders, and we had to wait for him to work his way over. The woman, meanwhile, was glaring.
"Will you fucking listen!" she shouted. "What's wrong with this place?"
Jack looked over at me and shrugged. It'd been a long day at work, a long ride on the subway. He'd been here one year and still had another to go, and I knew exactly how unglued I'd felt when I'd been at that point. Warning, I thought. Chernobyl.
"Look," he said finally, "I'm sorry you're in Asia and things aren't the way you'd thought they'd be. I'm sorry that this is a big concrete city and not a Shangri-La of mountain villages and wise and noble teachers. You answered that ad teach English in Korea. Everyone sees them in the papers back home, but you actually did it. Back home that makes you gutsy. Here it makes you average. But that doesn't mean that the Koreans have to make their country into something that passes muster with us." He paused here as Sung-Whan handed us fresh whiskeys.
"That's not what I was saying," she said. "I like Korea. It's the people here, at the Monk. Us! I mean, that guy took off his clothes,..." But Jack cut her off.
"I can tell you your future. The clinical progression of culture shock means you'll pretty much love your first month, hate the next four, start to feel better around month eight, then drop off a cliff at the end of year one. By then you'll start to cope in more sensible ways, but before that you'll either break your contract and go home, or else you'll be spanking Big Ed with the rest of 'em." Jack polished off his drink in one gulp. "So don't be saying we're all fucked up here."
The newbie woman got up and moved, but she didn't leave the Monk. After all, where else could she go? Once you knew where the Monk was, it was irresistible. You'd get up late and rush into work and teach all day long and all you'd want to do is go home and sleep. But then you'd be on the way home and the weight of everything would press down on you, the feeling of being alone as you walked through the busy streets, of looking different from everyone else, the weight of all the rude comments. And then you'd find yourself going down that familiar street, the Live Jass and Cock-tales sign showing you the way.
This new woman, she'd find it out soon enough. No matter what you dreamed your life in Korea would be like, once you knew where the Monk was, your life in Korea was no more than what it was. End of discussion.
"Except that's not what you were supposed to tell her," I said to Jack. "Because, you know, what she really wanted to hear was the story about the monk who never sleeps."
"You don't think that Newbie needs to know the truth?" he said. "Would you prefer I tell her some sugar-coated fantasy of oriental mystique?"
"No, it's not like that. But think about it. What are you going to tell people when you go back home. No one's going to listen to you if you start ranting about how college kids staring at you drove you to start spanking your co-workers. You need a calming kind of story, really. A good story to end things up with." I took a sip of my whiskey. I used to tell my brothers stories like this, when I was a kid, when I was stuck babysitting them and I was trying to get them to go to sleep. It was important, I knew, to get the words to roll from your tongue and springboard off the lips.
"You see, pretend there's this head monk, and he lives in a honest-to-God cave, surrounded by a thick green forest and there's a stream where huge torrents of white water come crashing down through a field of gray boulders. Down in the valley I figure there must be a monastery, something really old with a stone pagoda and a red gate. And there's a path from the gate up towards the cave, and the stones lining the path are all covered in moss. You're going to need a story like that to tell the newbies."
"It sounds wonderful," Jack said, sipping his drink.
"Yeah, you know, it does. And then when you get up to the cave, well, that's where the monk lives, and he never sleeps. Sure, he his eyes droop a little when he meditates, but he never sleeps. Hasn't for years. He just looks out over that forest and thinks about the sound of that stream slipping through those boulders."
"And your hiring agent said this was all true?"
"Sure. Maybe you could trade out, English lessons for enlightenment?"
"What a good idea. I'll be damned." Jack looked so much calmer now. And could it be that he had just made a non-sarcastic comment? Maybe he was going to make it after all, and with no regret. And on top of that, I felt that I'd won the story contest pretty handily. It was all enough to make a girl thirsty.
"Sung Whan," I called out, "More whiskey! Lot's more whisky!"