Expats, Writers, Degenerates and other Rarities
Posted by E on April 18, 2007
Sitting here a full six months after publishing my first book, I can’t help but reflect on my progression into a pool of mental stagnation.
From the euphoric high of finally holding in my hands a complete book and brimming with excitement over the next project – “Now that this is done, look how easy it can be! Let’s do it again! Now!”, to being torn at having to choose between different projects, and finally burning out inside my ideas while barely touching the keyboard. And so lately I have been revisiting much of my time as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea. Life was chaotic, full of stresses and joys that entwined into a symbiotic landscape inside my head, and out of that emerged the most fierce independence I have ever experienced.
I hardly put a pen to paper then, and the temporary act of relinquishing my masochistic need to create, that painful expulsion of memory into creative form, was blissful. I could feel “normal”, no longer propelled to stand apart from others, imbibed with my own secret stories. There was nothing to me but my suitcase and my resume. There was power in this hollowness of spirit. Albeit for a short while in the context of my life, I was free of the compulsion to create anything.
Within that hollowness there were many other life forms, all drawn to the East because, paradoxically for a place where so many natives are fiercely inhibited, it was the land of the unrestrained. I met teachers there who were drunks, expelled from their jobs back in the US and Canada, most who had no certifications whatsoever save for an online degree in TESOL that can be purchased with $400. Korean private language academies were so desperate for teachers they took anyone whose passport photograph conveyed as Caucasian and under 40. A sad but true fact. I was given return flight tickets, a very generous salary, and my own bachelor apartment.
That was the time for people of my generation to escape their student loans, minimal wage jobs and lack of respect – by taking the first offer from an Asian school who afforded you the title of honorable teacher. And yet while there, while seeking solidarity from others, I found myself in a minority of expats – I did not drink, smoke nor use occasional drugs, and well, just about everyone did just about everything. The attraction for male teachers was hooking up with pretty Korean girls. There were lots of them to fit the demand, very skinny and superficial girls who were drawn toward “Meegook” American boyfriends and preferably more than a couple.
And then there were the teachers who had other intentions, who were there simply for the children. I could see it by the void in their eyes and by their sheer inability to converse with other adults; these were people who would never hold a job back home. Eventually they would be fired in Korea, and drift along, from school to school, working without a legal visa, until they simply disappeared.
The appeal for social rejects and pedophiles to just disappear from their home towns, to be handed a flight ticket and a free apartment in a foreign country where children are so much more accessible, can be irresistible to that type of individual. It’s just too easy.
Although I may get some flack for this, I do believe there are more degenerate expat teachers with transparent “degrees” than there are genuine ones.
Asia is a haven for transient backpackers looking for quick cash and young grads who have a hard time finding employment after graduation. Standards for hiring are abysmally low – you only have to look presentable in a photo and speak English with no accent – not that the latter criteria is easily enforceable: I worked for an entire year with a French Canadian guy who could barely be understood by the foreign teachers. But he was nice-looking with blue eyes and was interviewed over the phone by a director with almost no English conversational ability.
During the time I was employed at my school in Seoul, out of seven foreign teachers, four were regular drug abusers who liked to chase their pot down with hard liquor. When Steve and Andy, two New York-based teachers, took their week-long holiday together in Vietnam and Thailand, they returned with a sizeable amount of marijuana and hashish. As they got high in their apartment, they laughed and shared how they managed to pull off such a feat – part of the stash had been smuggled in Steve’s rectum.
Aside from the “good” times, there were many things I disliked about my stint in Korea, but there was nothing I hated more, more than the crowding and shoving on the subways, more than the spitting and the open stares from ugly men, and that was the expats.
But as I sit here reflecting on my year and a half in South Korea, I am reminded of another type I met abroad. There were not many of them around, but the few who did come were wonderful, inspiring individuals who genuinely wanted to make the most of their experience. They loved the children and were warm with all the students, young and old, who entered their classrooms.
I came across people like that at expat community groups who met in pubs and restaurants across Seoul. There were lots of gay people there too, and one of the groups I’d joined was Seoul Sisters, a network made up of lesbian Korean adoptees who had returned to explore the land of their birth, and Western women who were either teachers like myself or stationed at the US army base.
I met creative people who were artists, writers, photographers and far beyond such definitions, and had transformed their lives and experiences into art. Such individuals humbled me; they had the strength to be themselves entirely, to drop the interchangeable masks that most people hold up in front of their genuine selves.
During the times I was desperate and wanted to do the “midnight run” back home, I would go on the internet and read the personal accounts of others who were in my place. Isolated in Korea, sometimes the only places we could interact was through the internet. Some isolated teachers had their own blogs or contributed to message boards such as Dave’s ESL café, where just about every ESL-teaching expat eventually makes a stopover. Even after returning back to Canada, I continued to read the accounts of likeminded spirits, people who were not deterred, either by site monitors or the pressure of other teachers and bosses, from speaking truthfully about their experiences.
One individual in particular made potentially the biggest contribution to the Korea ESL experience, by keeping up a significant blog and writing a book titled Island of Fantasy that became published through Lulu, the same press I used for my own material. His experiences paralleled my own to such degree that I often felt as though in some way I knew him. Indeed, I could easily have ran into him since we were in Korea at the same time and frequented some of the same places.
Shawn Matthews was a brilliant writer, full of humour and sarcastic wit to satisfy even the most jaded of readers. When I finished reading his book I must admit to feeling somewhat jealous – he had beaten me to the punch line, he’d written the book I intended to write. He was around my age, and there he went, putting out a memoir that took words and experiences right out of my mouth.
Over the last year I thought of his book as I put together the final draft of my own manuscript. Although what I was writing was on an altogether different subject, I derived some inspiration from his adventures, and was very satisfied with myself after I finally published my own book.
So this brings me back to a few months ago, when I was trying hard to tear myself away from the writer’s block that had enclosed my new project. Suddenly, it occurred to me to look back on Shawn’s blog for some satirical inspiration. But as I looked it up on the net, I quickly discovered that it had disappeared. The blog was gone! What had happened to it?
I googled Shawn’s name and to my shock, found out that Shawn had killed himself a month before. This person I had not met but had become synonymous with my own Korean experience, with my own desire to be a successful writer, had taken his life by leaping off the roof of his apartment building in Beijing, China. He had been teaching in China over the last year and apparently over the later months became constantly jeered and harassed over the internet by other teachers who disliked his opinions. They had gone so far as actually call him a pedophile on some chat boards, which could impact his teaching career. This turn of events, coupled with his state of depression over a girlfriend and perhaps other personal matters, made him snap. So on May 23, 2006, this young man could not take it anymore and committed suicide.
My effort to process his death was surreal. It was a tragedy that so much potential be lost, be thrown away like that. And as I found myself crying for someone who had been so alike myself, I was suddenly given the lesson of worth. On a deeper, more significant level, this realization snapped inside my body like an chord, resonating louder, reverberating though my being. I was outside my own self, looking at this other person who was beautiful and talented and did not value his own life enough to preserve its magic. A young man who had everything going for him – his youth, his health, and a brilliant mind. All gone in an instant.
For the first time in my entire life, the message finally sank in. In the past I had come so close to being where Shawn was, to throwing away all the good I had but did not see it right in front of me.
And the other thing I did not see until recently: the very act of not writing, of not fulfilling my potential, as an act of defiance against my spirit. As a lashing out against my own sense of self-worth. For every day I do not create, I tear another page out of the manuscript of my own fulfillment.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s words never had more weight than today – When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.