If I don't get deported, I'm sure to get demoted, or at least, win some award for human stupidity. I have to keep this a secret from my new colleagues. So far, Steve is the only one who knows.
We're in a police station in Seoul, Korea. Steve is talking to an officer in Korean, hopefully pleading ignorance on my behalf, maybe saying how I've only been in the country since yesterday and I didn't know any better. The officer keeps pointing at me and saying, “Me-cheen goog-jay nahm-ja.”
Steve keeps looking back at me. His expression keeps changing. Sometimes, he scratches at his brown brush cut, wondering, I suppose, how I could have been so dumb. Sometimes, he seems on the verge of hysterical laughter. Then his eye contact shifts back to the square-jawed, stoic male officer and he suppresses it. Other times, his face goes beet red in anger and I fear he'll take the cop's handgun and shoot me himself.
Not that I think Steve would be capable of stealing the gun and firing. The Korean officer is a muscular six foot two and probably mid-twenties, around my age. Steve is at least half a foot shorter and has a soju (Korean vodka) gut. He may still be able to out-dribble me, like he did at the orientation basketball game, but I don't think he's quick enough at forty-something to outmanoeuvre the cop to get the gun. This is, after all, the same cop who took less than five seconds to judo-throw me to the ground, flip me on my stomach and lock me in handcuffs.
Regardless, if Steve does manage to get the gun, it won't be the first time — or the second, for that matter — that my life was threatened today.
I finished my paperwork at NIS (Namhansanseong International School) a little late today, so I missed the bus home. When I told Mr. Nam, the bus driver, I wouldn't be on the bus, he told me what subways to take. But when I looked at the subway map, I couldn’t remember the name of the stop to get off at. The words all look and sound the same to me right now, even though the subway map Mr. Nam gave me was in both Korean Hangul and English.
So I decided to run home. I traced the bus route along a parallel sidewalk, but after a couple of kilometres, the sidewalk ended and I didn't want to take my chances on the road. The system of driving here seems to be about who can get from point A to point B the fastest. No one seems to care about stoplights, pedestrians, traffic signs and driving on the right side of the road.
I found a dirt road that appeared to follow a similar direction to the route home, so I started running on it. A few hundred metres in, I passed a couple of farms. Cattle grazed the rolling fields, and women and men were picking red-hot chili peppers. Soon, the road narrowed to a trail and began to snake its way upward across a hill and through a forest.
I looked backward and saw that I'd been following a near 45° angle from the paved road. The trail ahead, though winding, appeared to continue the same way, so I guessed if I followed it I would eventually intersect another main paved road, this time with a sidewalk that was on the bus route to and from school. So I continued.
It was just like running the cross-country trails back home. In another few minutes, I passed between some white signs that were about the dimensions of a for-sale sign on a lawn. The signs were on opposite sides of the path, and were written only in Hangul, so I had no idea what they said. There was no red lettering, so I figured I was safe.
Every twenty metres or so past the signs, you could step off to the side and try some sort of exercise. There was a Tarzan rope over a rectangular puddle, a chin-up bar, a cargo net you could climb up and over and more. I figured this place was just a park and that's what the signs must have read.
What a discovery.
So I tried out the exercises for a few minutes and then started to head home again. But first, after all my running, I needed to pee.
I stepped off the trail and found a boulder to pee on. I looked up at the blue sky peeking through the trees. Not bad — a little bit of nature and privacy inside this metropolis they call Seoul. I might just do okay here.
Just after I'd zipped up, the officer (the one Steve is talking to now) swooped down in front of me from a tree like a ninja. He grabbed me with both hands by the collar, rotated his shoulders against my chest, and flipped me over his hips back onto the trail. He started yelling something at me in Korean. Then he flipped me on my stomach and handcuffed my wrists behind my back.
“Oh-een-jog jiloe!” he screamed. “Oh-een-jog jiloe.”
He pulled his gun out of his holster and held it to my temple, all the while continuing to yell “Oh-een-jog jiloe” at me. Thank God I'd just urinated or I'd have wet myself right there.
Moments later, several other male officers emerged from behind other trees.
Oh shit, I just ran into the middle of a Korean army and police training exercise!
"I'm a teacher!" I screamed.
Around my neck was a white string that held a clear flexible plastic case. Inside the case was my business card–sized ID card from NIS. My NIS dog tag translates in English to, "Hi, my name is Carlson Veitch. I am a teacher at Namhansanseong International School. My address is 107 Unheang Jugong Aparta, Namhansanseong, Seoul, Korea. Please call 197-1912, Mr. Steve Bell, if you need assistance.”
Veitch rhymes with beach, but in Korea, so far, they keep saying, “Bee-chee.”
We were told to wear the tag in case we got lost, like a puppy or a dementia patient. I don't know if it's PC for me to write the latter, but that’s how confused and embarrassed I felt when I realized what I'd gotten myself into, so maybe it's okay.
"I'm a teacher,” I screamed again.
The plastic was stuck to my chest because of the sweat from the run and my terror. I bit the string and lifted my chin until the ID card came free from my chest. Then I bit the card and rotated it sideways by turning my head until the officer could see it.
Which brings us to now. Steve looks to be finished talking to the officer. He's signed some paperwork and handed over a wad of cash. Steve shakes his head and walks over to me.
"You owe me one million won," he says, in a southern U.S. twang. He’s from Kennisaw, Georgia, near Atlanta.
"How much is that in US?" I ask, meekly.
"Over a thousand bucks."
“Or more like thirteen hundred in your Canuck money."
I had no choice. "Deal," I say.
"Plus, you're treating me and the wife to dinner at King Sejong restaurant some time."
"You got it."
"We missed our date night because of you."
"I'm sorry. I'll pay you back a little each paycheque."
We walk out of the station. Steve's dust-covered black Hyundai Sonata is parked in front of the Hyundai bank adjacent to the Hyundai gas station. The car is parked tight between two other Hyundai Sonatas, both silver and shiny. Steve does a 17-point turn to get us out of the spot and across the road, heading in the other direction. In the process, he nearly takes out a Domino's pizza delivery boy on a moped, four other Hyundais and one Kia. He also runs a red light, one directly in front of the police station, but nobody seems too upset about any of this, as if this type of driving is the norm.
A couple of minutes later, we pull up to 107 Unheang Jugong Aparta. There are kids playing in the lot, throwing tennis balls above and below the parked Hyundais and Kias, oblivious to Steve trying to pull into a spot. He drives within inches of some of the kids and they don't notice him, until he toots the horn.
Steve finds a spot between a shiny blue Hyundai Sonata and a slick black Kia Capital.
"Now, Carlson," he says. "You know why this was such a big deal, right?"
It’s such a big deal because after paying my dues with five years of university earning a Bachelor of Kinesiology and a Bachelor of Education from Queen’s, I think I’ve earned my freedom. I got a job teaching science and P.E. at Kipling Secondary, but Damian Glenn, my boss, made my first year in the real world a living hell.
Damian wore his tie so tight that his neck fat spilled over the collar and it resembled a noose. Noose-Neck never had my back. If a kid was acting like a turd in my class, say stealing another kid’s wallet and then claiming it was a joke when I confronted him, Noose-Neck would believe the thieving child and accuse me of weak classroom management. Or if a girl told me to f— off, he’d reduce the kid’s mandatory suspension to a lunch detention that never got served anyway because the kid’s mommy would plead to him that her daughter had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, as if that’s an excuse. And those two examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Noose-Neck’s tie also symbolized the grip he had on me.
I also started my career at the worst possible time. After six weeks of teaching, we went on strike against the government for two weeks because, among other reasons, they had imposed a 12 percent workload increase. Then, one day into second semester, when we protested the extra work, the school board locked us out for three weeks. To put things into perspective, my father taught for thirty-five years and was on strike for one day. I wanted to quit every day.
Somehow, with the support of Poppa Wib (a retired teacher), my Aunt Pam (my surrogate mom since mine had passed away), Grandma Veitch’s cooking, two strong department heads at Kipling in Sara and Gary, a girlfriend — Lauren, who’d been through a similar quarterlife crisis — and comic relief from my two university running buddies (Teagan and D’Souza), I survived the year with nothing but wounded pride, a softer waistline and the beginnings of a receding hairline on my sandy blond locks.
So this overseas contract is supposed to be an escape from all that. A chance to earn money, learn about Korean culture, fly to Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh and so on, on my holidays for cheap. And then another bonus: I’m also hired to coach the boys’ cross-country running team — and I get paid! In Canada, coaching in high school is voluntary.
This job halfway around the world is all about freedom. And I’ve stuffed it up in less than 24 hours.
“Hey, buddy,” Steve says. “Did you hear me? You know why this was such a big deal, right?”
I don’t tell Steve about all my angst. "Uh, yeah. Because I took a leak on a rock in a Korean Army training ground. It was disrespectful."
"Yes. But that wasn't the main issue."
"Huh? So I did something worse?"
"Uh, yeah. The officer was protecting you."
"What? He pointed a gun at me!"
"There are UXOs all over Korea," says Steve.
"I still don't get it."
“Haven't you seen the commercials on your TV here?”
“The officer who took me down kept screaming, ‘Oh-een-jog jiloe, Oh-een-jog jiloe’ at me. Does that have anything to do with it?”
“Land mines, Carlson. Left over from the Korean War." Steve looks angry, like he did in the police station. “That’s why the commercials often say jiloe, which means ‘land mines.’ And Oh-een-jog means ‘left.’ So the officer was yelling, ‘Land mines to the left, land mines to the left’ as a warning to you.”
And then it dawns on me. My jaw drops and my chest sinks. When nature called and I stepped off the path, I could have triggered a land mine and blown myself up. "Oh my God."
Steve bursts into laughter. He soon regains his composure but still shakes his head at me. “It’s good the police phoned me, Carlson. If Dr. Williams finds out, he’ll force me to fire you from the coaching position, or even worse—”
“He’ll send me back home.”
“I know how important this job and the coaching position are to you, so let’s keep this between us.”
“I will. Thank you so much. I can’t believe I did that. And I’ll pay you back.”
“You made an expat rookie mistake. I don’t think you’ll do it again.”