Ken May

Expatriate waves

Socializing with Mr Expatriate


I was looking for Mr. Sodum. The good bar in Seoul was full of foreigners that could have been him; it was hard to be certain because I had never seen Sodum before. I associated him with his Internet avatar: a picture of Moe from the Three Stooges comedy troop. However, I doubted that anyone would sport the same kitchen bowl hairstyle in real life. Sodum was somebody that I became acquainted with on www.ajarn.com - a popular website used by English teachers in Thailand. He took on a high profile identity of an pro-American, right-wing, police man. Sodum sent me a private message earlier that greeted me to Korea. We were both in the same town. He claimed to be in the country as a special security advisor. His invitation was suspect from the beginning because he liked neither me or my politics. In fact, he once declared that I came from a family of Appalachian clog farmers (actually not too far from the truth). However, when in a foreign country, expatriates have a way of forming unlikely bonds. Mutual disagreements can melt away when you discover the common denominator of living in a foreign county. People who wouldn’t give you the time of day in your homeland can strike up friendships with you abroad. So I figured, what the hell, I might as well meet him – security policeman and all.

I patrolled the bar looking for signs of Sodum. He promised to sport a black t-shirt with a Three Stooges logo. Memories returned as I remembered that period on the www.ajarn.com chat room forum. I had recently finished nearly two years worth of teaching in Thailand. My first book, Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates at Play in Asia’s Global Village, had just been published. I saw copies of it at the airport as I flew back to the United States. I earned 3-4 months worth of bragging and shagging rights, and then it started to taper off. In the United States I was unemployed. America was in the middle of a major recession and experiencing one of its largest job losses since the Great Depression in the 1930s. I had a lot of idle time. After one superfluous resume too many, expatriate chat rooms became my outlet. I had posted on www.ajarn.com before under a different username, but this time I went into full action. The Iraq War was unilaterally declared and this website allowed me to vent frustration. Janet Jackson flashed a breast at a Superbowl game and the website enabled me to laugh at the American concept of morality. After my 100th post I announced that I would quit. Chat rooms were sucking up too much time and energy. I started to write a second book and flew to France to work on an organic farm (a story better left unspoken). But, even in Europe there was a curious temptation to check out the website anonymously.

Eventually, I spent time in Berlin, sleeping in parks to save money, while lining up my next teaching job. The Internet has always proved my best source to find employment. Within days all my former schools offered to rehire me. After brief deliberation, I decided to return to Korea (because my former schools in Hungary and Thailand didn’t pay as much money). I had worked in Korea previously in 1999 and 2000 and missed Korean culture. I also wondered how previous students were doing. Berlin had a Korean consulate, which was why I floated into Germany. I had plenty of time to kill before my work visa was obtained. I went back online under the user name, “Ihavenolips”, until a series of angry hackers shut ajarn.com down. Just as I was getting into the rhythm of my identity, after making it to Korea, I was blocked from signing in. Before long, I was posting on several websites that focused specifically on Korea instead. I switched websites, but continued to view ajarn.com anonymously. There was a part of me that felt more strongly attached to Thailand. Eventually, Sodum somehow figured out my new identity (on a Korean forum) and sent me a private message. I never met somebody from an on-line chat before, and debated if I ever wanted to, but I decided to make an exception.

I heard a voice shout from across the bar, “Ken May, I presume?” (I had posted links to photographs that identified me). My gaze wandered toward the voice. I imagined a bulky policeman, somebody with skin like leather, who drank whiskey straight from the bottle, a salt of the earth type, but I was surprised at the individuals who stood before me. It was a young and lanky lad who looked like he struggled to grow even a month’s worth of stubble. The kid had no muscle tone to speak of and, to my horror, he had enough acne on his neck to play a game of dot-to-dots. Was this really the face of Sodum? You can never really be sure given the nature of the Internet. I decided to play along with the gag just in case it was him. We settled in with a few scotches and stories about other posters. The person before me had clearly participated in the ajarn forum. He knew so many subtle details about it. But, something didn’t seem right, maybe it was how he embellished stories about himself. He told me how he broke up a ring of drug smugglers in the Golden Triangle and how he busted the kneecaps of crooks in America. However, the story that pushed it over the edge was when he claimed to sell arms to freedom fighters that hid in mountains on an undisclosed Micronesian Island. Freedom fighters? Mountains? Micronesia?

This could have really been Sodum. However, I had to examine other alternatives. If it was a imposter than who could it be. Many pranksters also used the ajarn forum around that time: The Mad Baron, Nemesis, Dirty Dog, Biohazard, Marco? I recalled that many users had worked in Korea before: Isan Alex, Spliff, Geo, Wangsuda, and even Sodum himself. There are quite a few connections between expatriates in Korea and those in Thailand. Many teachers swing back and forth between the two countries – between decent salaries and being broke in paradise. Korea is where teachers often go for their first experience (busting their chops on a hagwon job). It wasn’t clear if this unimpressive Sodum was the real McCoy or a mock apple pie. I wondered why somebody would put all this effort into playing this joke on me. My one brief experiment with Sodum left a weird aftertaste. In the end it came down to one variable: this man was buying all my scotch. As long as he paid for my booze than he was Sodum to me. Hell, he could be the Queen of England for all I cared.

After this encounter I got to thinking. The website forums used by expatriates flow in waves. There are moments when everything comes together, momentum is built, and then it all dissipates when it crashes ashore. A collection of characters conflict and collide momentarily; creating an interesting forum. In time it starts to swallow itself: posters return home, they get new jobs, move to a different country, they get turned off by trolls, discover new forums, or feel that new users water down the chat room that they once knew – or maybe angry hackers just shut it down (or Korean Netizens as described in last month’s article). However, a new wave is created as the old one is pulled back into the ocean. Suction causes each wave to regroup. Maybe a few drops rematerialize to influence the next wave – and the process starts over again. Forums can be new and refreshed, but never the same. Sodum was an old user of the ajarn forum. That period, that wave, can never be duplicated. However, my encounter with what might have been an imposter pulled me back in. This is why I started to write monthly articles on www.ajarn.com as a guest writer. Surfers don’t quit after one wave, they just wait for the next one to catch. For awhile, I rode on top of various Korean forums, while writing columns for ajarn.com in Thailand, but now it is time to land once again. My time as an English teacher in Korea is nearly over.

Expatriate teachers also move in waves. In Korea it always amazes me how fast the teaching scene can change. People sign new contracts, quit and go home, or discover opportunities in different countries. The expatriate scene is always changing. The teaching population fully fluctuates; and never stagnates for long. Not long ago I decided to abstain from expatriate bars (another story best left untold). After three weeks I returned to discover an entirely different crowd. There was a new generation of teachers. There were so many new faces that I felt out of place. Many of my old friends had silently moved on. People finished contracts, couple split apart, and some teacher started new cliques at different expatriate clubs. The one thing that has always impressed me about teaching in Korea is the sheer volume and magnitude of it. Westerners from all the Native-English speaking flavors are well represented. There are many drifts and flows to float among. After three weeks of absence there was a new wave of teachers. I could either catch it or softly eddy in my own pool.

These thought were especially important since my own contract was coming to an end. Time constraints forced me into making my next choice. It was with this backdrop when voices from past waves began to coincidently whirl together once again. On a Korean forum website, I suspected that a poster’s style was like someone that I once knew in Hungary. I send off a few inquiring e-mails to find out. Eventually, I learned that one of my old friends was indeed living in Seoul. I fired off one more e-mail and I was visiting her within a month. She had found her special place in Korea, in 2000, and even studied at a Korean university. She spoke fluent Korean and learned traditional paper handicrafts on the side. She taught me how to make artistic tea coasters, in an obscure shop in Itaewon that few tourists would ever hear about. Afterward, we spent the evening with other expatriates. Many of them were deeply rooted, living in Korea for years. Some had even married Korean girlfriends. I worked with this friend in Hungary in 1998 and here we were again nearly six years later. The irony is that she came to Korea because of various e-mails that I sent her. However, she arrived exactly one week after I departed. My energy initially sucked her in, but she found her own wave to ride out over the years.

Now, I could have latched onto her wave. Water seeks its own level; in Seoul I quickly found kindred spirits. She introduced me to several friends who offered me a place to stay in Seoul or promised to share connections for teaching jobs. We spent the evening in an expatriate bar, drinking stout beer, and swapping business cards. In the end, it was me who found one of them a teaching job in Kumi. It was a favor for a friend of a friend. It was the least that I could do. Private schools need to learn that the most vital asset for finding future English teachers is word-by-mouth references. A hagwon’s reputation depends on it more than they realize. On one hand, there are at least seven blacklists floating around the Internet about schools to avoid. I have mixed feelings when a poster anonymously names and shames a school (because you never know the context of the situation or the critic’s credibility), but I do find these blacklists helpful at times. On the other hand, a positive reference by a former teacher can easily seal a deal. I have hooked up at least seven teachers with my former schools. Likewise, I have found Hungarian students jobs as nannies in New York and Thai students employment as hotel workers in Ohio. Even while unemployed in America, posting incoherent babble on the ajarn forum, I was still able to use enough clout to get other people work.

Expatriate websites have more power than people realize. My guest writer articles on ajarn.com have reconnected me with many people. A number of teachers have stumbled across them and found my e-mail address. Like myself (while in the U.S. and Europe), these friend couldn’t resist logging onto the ajarn teaching forum while stuck to their couches back home. Old friends have written about how they missed Thailand or have requested contact information about mutual acquaintances (much like I networked to relocate the woman I knew in Hungary). Last month, in my article about tourism in Korean, I folded a single sentence about teaching job vacancies within the text. In only two days I received seven inquiries. I am happy to say that I placed at least two of them with solid jobs. No less than three people responded from Thailand. They caught a wave into Korea, but at the same time I was riding mine all the way back to Thailand. Earlier this month, I finally decided not to extend my contract and will leave Korea shortly. Call it the expatriate exchange.

My goal in Thailand is to pick up my first royalty check for Road Rash and to invest it in a TEFL certificate (one of the ones advertised on www.ajarn.com). I have been teaching for so long that I might as well call it my career. It will be immensely productive for me to learn new classroom tools and methods. After five years of teaching my old classroom activities seem stale. I want to refresh them. Afterward, I am not sure where I will teach. There are invitations coming from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kuwait, Turkey, Poland, and Costa Rica. There are so many opportunities available for English teachers these days that a qualified individual can design their own wave. Many English teachers settle down in a foreign country for years. Some get married to a local and make roots. Other teachers, like me, prefer to migrate from country to country. We enjoy the thrill of travel and cultural exchange. So Thailand will be my next stop, but afterward who know? The world is open before me. The TEFL certificate will allow me to approach it with a more smooth seduction. And I have always had that savage thirst for exploration.
****
There is a type of liberation in knowing that you about to leave something. You are free to do what you want with less consequences. The wave that you have caught is moving in the opposite direction. Therefore, I couldn’t resist trying to get one last leg over at the expatriate bars. I started out at the Rolling Stone and ended up at Psycho – and, yes, I am using real names, just in case newbies need to find other teachers in Kumi and stumble across this article. The Rolling Stone tends to be the bar where expatriates gather early in the evening, and some never leave until sunrise. It usually boasts a population of young, single, female teachers. My last experience at Rolling Stone lead to spending the entire evening with two gorgeous women – one talked all night about India and the other spoke fondly of cows. At midnight expatriates start migrating to Psycho, filling it with wild energy. It is tradition for teachers to climb on top of tables to start dancing when they are plastered. I have seen clothing fly and underwear twist in origamic shapes. A few particularly sensual female teachers from Canada are well-known for dancing on top of the bar – sexily surfing it like it was a wave towards expatriate inebriation.

My last evening at the expatriate clubs was slightly tempered by recent events in Korea. There has been growing animosity that is directed against English teachers. Last month, Korean netizens put an expatriate website out of commission, a western-style bar was publicly humiliated for hosting a wet T-shirt contest, a petition was circulated on the Internet to expel “unqualified” foreign teachers, and a number of foreign teachers have already been arrested (see my March article). I thought that the tension would blow over, but in fact it has gotten worse. A popular Korean television channel, SBS, broadcasted a sensationalist documentary about the hagwon industry. The program hired actors to portray foreign English teachers performing a variety of misdeeds. Male teachers were shown as child molesters, who corrupted minors with booze and sexual seduction. A commentator announced that only 5% of all foreign English teachers were qualified. No discussion defined what the “qualifications” were exactly, which could actually be a productive idea, but that wasn’t the issue. The television program’s motive was clear: western English teachers must be treated harshly before they spread immoral social germs like a contagious disease. As we danced, drank, and played that evening few teachers took these events seriously. Meanwhile, at Korean hagwons it was a different story.
Many parent’s saw the television broadcast and virtually all private school directors are fully aware of it. It is a hot topic in most Korean staff rooms. Some parent’s have started pulling their children out of school. They fear the immoral activities of English teachers – more specifically male teachers. I live in the countryside where these accusations have even more impact. When I notified my director that I would leave, I helped her out by finding three decent candidates for a replacement teacher. On the books their credentials were solid. However, my director changed her mind at the last second and hired a Korean teacher instead. Many parents had informed my director that they were more comfortable with the latter choice.

Personally, these recent events have made me slightly paranoid. Children sometimes climb on me affectionately, but now I instinctively push them away. Young students loved this game where they grab onto my shoulders while a spin them in circles. It used to be a fun activity to break the ice, but now I refuse their pleas. Today three of my more difficult students waited for me at my apartment for an hour. They had been roller skating in my neighborhood and wanted to surprise me (in a small district all the students know where you live). Normally, I might have invited the boys in for some water. I escorted them outside instead. The last thing I needed was a rumor that students had been inside my apartment. For a male teacher all it takes is a single accusation, let alone a rumor, to ruin your reputation. Job security can be more fragile than teachers believe. Ultimately, these reports have made me more cold, distant, and rude as a teacher. It was a letdown because Koreans can be some of the warmest people once you get to know them. The children can be fun to joke with at times. I started to shut myself off from the local community.

Many teachers talked about this recent television program at the expatriate nightclubs. During our weekend festivities a few of us expressed a desire to do something more about it. It was decided to hold a ceremony at the anti-western monument that was erected in 1871. The Cheokwabi monument reads: “Western barbarians invade our land. If we do not fight, we must then appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray the nation”. In some ways the recent actions against English teachers reflect Korea’s past as a hermit kingdom. The monument had symbolic significance that applies today. The idea was to visit the anti-western monument and talk about these controversies. We could learn from the situation and educate others – after all we are teachers. Expatriates planned private rituals, discussed playing music, and mentioned writing letters to Korean newspaper. A few of us encouraged monthly picnics or annual parties (starting our own traditions). I didn’t really care what form the ceremony shaped into. For me it was all about education. I wanted the other English teachers to learn about Korean history and to see a side of Korean culture that they never heard of before. The monument is in the remote countryside, in an area enriched with a Buddhist past, and no guidebook even mentions my district.

The ceremony was scheduled at 2:00 in the afternoon on a Korean holiday Everybody had that day off from work. Most teachers celebrated the night before at the Psycho or the Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, I solemnly stayed home packing my luggage. When I left Korea the first time, back in 2000, I had a full blow out with other expatriates on my final evening. However, this time I wanted something different. I wanted to be sent off with a significant act. My goal was to drag teachers away from the bars long enough for intellectual conversation and stimulating exercise. This was how I sincerely wanted to spend my last night out with expatriates in Korea. I should have known better. In the morning I started receiving phone calls to report hangovers. A little later other English teachers announced that they had partied until sunrise and couldn’t make it. One teacher changed her mind because the monument wasn’t big enough to warrant a visit. Before long, I realized that our numbers were dwindling.
In the end not one English teacher showed up. I went to our designated meeting spot – yet another pub – and waited in case somebody straggled in. The only foreigners I saw were from the Mid-East. They worked in the factories. A few of them talked with me just because we were mutual outsiders. When I told them out plans to visit the anti-western monument, one of the Arabic men laughed. He explained, “Where I come from we also have anti-western monuments, but we tend to call them burning tanks”. He went on to invite me to teach English in his country. “We may not like your government,” he stated, “but we recognize that a country’s people are not the same as those in power. I would personally welcome more English teachers into my country. English can help us to understand each other”. The Arabic man pencilled in the name of his university and a contact to write to for a job. He regrouped with the other Arabs to walk down the local red light district. I was left alone, wondering if new opportunities were really open in the Mid-East. Who knows, it may be where I end up.

I strolled to the monument by myself. I intentionally timed my visit to coincide with perfect afternoon light. It was a beautiful day. The winter cold had momentarily offered reprieve. There were tempting hints of spring. The air smelled wonderful. I cleared away dead grass from the monument. I respectfully left offerings of Korean food and poured Korean alcohol at its base. I fumbled with some bastardised version of a prayer and then I ate lunch. I conducted my own private ritual (that I won’t discuss in this article) and then I meditated on my time in Korea. Then I started to celebrate. I opened up a bottle of scotch – single row malt, peat smoked, and aged 12 years. It tasted exquisite. I lamented deeply about problems between Koreans and English teachers. I thought about my expatriate friends who I might never see again. Maybe this monument only has meaning for myself anymore. Koreans don’t come here and westerners never cared about it in the first place. I have made love on the monument, pissed on it, and fallen asleep in its shadow. Maybe the ceremony I craved was one within myself. The monument enabled me to understand myself as part of a continuity of expatriates. And for this, the stone boulder deserves a toast. I lifted my chalice – an old tea cup that I bought back in 1999, that passed through the hands of several generations of English teachers. Cheers!

I climbed on top of the monument and drank some scotch in one shot. I subconsciously started to dance in welcome of the spring-like sun. My memory flashed back to the Psycho club, where every Friday night sexy women spontaneously dance on top a bar counter, as if was their own monument to feminine seduction. In praise of these women I offered my own dance in return. I stood on top of the anti-western stone boulder, breathing in the energy of the upcoming spring. Then I got an idea. I rapidly peeled clothing off my body until I was fully naked. Nobody pays attention to this monument anymore so I might as well have fun. Naked and drunk, I realized that I stood atop the anti-western monument as if it were a wave. I was riding the expatriate wave for all it was worth. This was the ritual I was looking for. I was catching a drift that was leading me back to Thailand. I was surfing the stone monument. In time, a new group of recruits would arrive on Korea shores – despite all the recent controversy. And in time I would be gone. My energy spent in Korea will be reabsorbed, and I will soon become another anonymous foreigner in an endless string of English teachers. All that remains is the eternal spirit of expatriates. It was time for me to catch my next wave. And with this final act – to Korea – I wave goodbye.




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