Tanya was gone. It was over. There was no chance of our ever getting back together. After she left our bed on that fateful day, when she learned that I could never produce a child with her, I never saw her again. After she left our bed on that fateful day, when she learned that I could never produce a child with her, I never saw her again.
When I returned to Ottawa, after the ice storm had left its mark across Eastern Ontario and South-western Quebec, I tried to find Tanya through her sister, Nancy. Nancy lived in Montreal: I had her phone number from one of the many long-distance phone bills that Tanya racked. When we lived together, Tanya would call her several times each week. I didn't care about the expenses—whatever made Tanya happy.
“Tanya left Korea,” Nancy told me. She wouldn’t provide Tanya’s current location. Only that she was travelling throughout South-East Asia. Possibly Thailand, I surmised: we had often talked about going there together. Was Tanya alone?
Surely, too soon for her to be with another man.
“Tanya isn’t taking that job at the university,” Nancy offered, knowing it was on my mind. Chŏnbuk National University: she had been offered a job teaching in its International Language Institute. One of her private adult students was married to the director of the department. When Tanya’s and my job at the hagwon—independent language institute—crumbled under the strain of the financial crisis, her after-hours student stepped up. Just as one of my hagwon students stepped up to help me find a teaching position at Jeonju University—Chŏnju’s equivalent of a community college.
I thanked Nancy for the information and asked her to pass my love on to Tanya. I wanted Nancy, as well as Tanya, to know that I still loved her. That I always would.
“It’s over,” I said to Siobhan, stressing the word “over” so that it sounded final. It was the first time I had said it out loud. The word hurt to say. But after nearly a week after my call to Nancy, I accepted the fact that unless Tanya had plans to return to Chŏnju, I would never see her again. “Once again, it’s time for me to accept a loss and move forward.”
“There are plenty more women out there, my brother,” said Siobhan. “Think of Tanya as an amuse bouche in the buffet of women. You’ll find someone who you can really sink your teeth into.”
“You’ve got to work on your metaphor’s, sis’” I said. “Tanya wasn’t a meal. Though, she was a tasty morsel.” I swirled the nearly empty tumbler of Lagavulin, realizing I had had more than my fair share of Bryan’s bottle. Not that the successful architect couldn’t afford it. Not that any of us couldn’t afford it. The Axam's family loss had brought significant inheritances.
“What say you stay in North Berwick? I have a friend, Fiona. I think the two of you would hit it off.”
I remembered meeting Fiona at a party when Siobhan was attending the University of Edinburgh. She hit on me, even though she knew I was with Kristen.
Kristen: my late wife.
“She seemed a little wild to me, last time I saw her. I hope she’s settled down.” Even though I was married at the time, I found Fiona to be sexy, a real firecracker. Back then, I thought, in another life, perhaps. In another life.
“Not much,” Siobhan admitted.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going back. I made a commitment to the university. I couldn’t let Mrs. Kim down—she went out on a limb to get me that job.” Mrs. Kim: my student from the hagwon. Lots of my students had my back, but few looked out for me as she had. Or Mr. Lee had. “And besides, I’m not ready to come back. I might have made strides in my first year, but I’m without all of my friends. I need to know that I can stand on my own feet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “But what I do know is that I feel not only obliged to return to Korea, but that I really want to go. I need to prove once again that I can move on.”
“He’s not ready, love,” said Bryan, his voice soft and caressing, knowing how to appeal to my sister without sounding like a reprimand. Though he was a tall and muscular man, almost resembling my dad in stature, Bryan was always soft-spoken. Always the voice of reason. Rising from his seat on the sofa, next to Siobhan, he leaned forward and poured me another measure of whisky. “Let him follow his own path.”
“Well said,” I responded, raising my newly filled glass.
Siobhan grunted, not used to not getting her way. I’m sure there would be words to Bryan, after I was gone. Would Bryan's soothing voice remain?
Not my problem. This year, I had to think of myself. I needed to be a little selfish. Last year, at the hagwon, I had become too involved with my students and fellow teachers. Too involved with Tanya. I hadn’t gone to Korea to find love; I had gone to forget a love that was violently snatched from me. Not to forget Kristen, nor Laura Elizabeth, nor Dad. I had gone to forget the pain associated with the loss of them. They were gone, all died in that car crash on that fateful day in July, more than two-and-a-half years ago. Staying in Ottawa, the memory of them, the pain of their passing, was too close for me and too much to handle. Staying in Ottawa, the only way that I could suppress the sorrow was found at the bottom of a bottle. Of several bottles.
It had been Siobhan, with the help of our mother, who had shaken me from my sorry state of self-pity. She ventured from her busy career—she, the administrative assistant to Edinburgh’s Lord Provost—to Ottawa, to sober me up and get me to move forward. Siobhan was the one who suggested that I teach abroad, to go to Japan. It was I who had settled on South Korea after talking to a friend’s sister, who had, herself, taught in that country for a year.
But I had chosen a bad year to go to Korea, though I didn’t know it at the time. Economic corruption had fuelled the financial crisis that was spreading across South-East Asia. Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, along with South Korea, were the worst-affected countries. Ironically, the offer made by the International Monetary Fund to help South Korea out of its slump made matters worse: over fears that tough restrictions would be placed over the money that the IMF was willing to offer, the Korean Stock Exchange dropped lower and lower. The won plummeted.
My employer took a beating, at first. Because he was paying his teachers based on the American dollar, he found himself paying us more and more won, to the point where he was paying nearly twice the amount of won as he had been when I first started working for him. And his second business, a trading company, was not doing so well. Business was dropping off. Contracts were not being won. And the hagwon was sucking him dry as student enrolment was dwindling.
I said the hagwon director took a beating at first. His solution to his financial crisis was to not pay the teachers. At the end of December, on payday, after his three teachers had worked a full month for him, Kwon Tae-ha informed us that he couldn’t pay us and that he was closing the language institute. He instructed us to leave the country. I had managed to get some money from him and was able to ensure that one of the teachers received a paycheque, but Tanya and I hadn’t fared as well. Kwon owed Tanya for the month of December and owed me that month in wages as well as a stipend. I never saw a cent.
But I also didn’t leave the country. Not permanently.
I had no plan on how to deal with Kwon. Once I had my new work visa in hand, I would have stable legs to stand upon. But I’d have no power. The labour board already told me that they couldn’t intervene. Because the three teachers and only one secretary were on Kwon’s books for the hagwon, the company was considered too small for them to pursue. Tanya and I were cut loose.
Not that I needed the money. After the accident, I received a large inheritance and insurance settlement. I never needed to work again. And in truth, I hadn’t gone to Korea to earn a living. But my financial gain came at too great a loss for me. I would gladly give back every penny if I could turn back the clock.
Tanya also wasn’t hurting for cash, and not just because she had been living with me. She taught enough students privately to keep herself financially afloat. Her income from these students more than equaled her pay from Kwon, and took only half the time. As much as she deserved her pay, she didn’t suffer for the lack of it.
When I returned to Chŏnju and got settled, I would set my sights on Kwon.
“So, what is your plan?” Bryan asked me. I liked Bryan. He was a good man, was good for Siobhan. She was always career-focused, always serious. Only at home, after a couple of drinks, she would relax and let her guard down. Bryan helped to keep her relaxed at home. Would always remind her that there was more to life than a job. Life had to be enjoyed. Not that he wasn’t a dedicated, hard-working man. His job at an affluent architecture firm was taken seriously. He was on a team that was working on designs for the proposed Scottish parliament buildings, should they ever come to be. Bryan's firm was among the top contenders. And Bryan was putting in many hours of overtime on the project. But when he was at home, he was at home: a clear division from the office was drawn.
“I’m excited about teaching at the university,” I said. “I’m going to give it my best effort, use all the skills that I learned at the hagwon to the fullest. And I’m going to continue teaching my private students, if they still want me.” I had three students that I taught after hours, but hadn’t seen them since the end of December, when everything was turned on its head. I spent most of January figuring out the year ahead, and dealing with Tanya walking out on me because she wanted to have a child with me. A child I couldn’t give her because Kristen and I had made the decision to stop at one child. My vasectomy was permanent.
“What about friends?” asked Siobhan. She knew that my two closest friends, Brad and Wilma, had left Korea when their hagwon had closedanother victim of the economic downturn. Wilma had been laid off more than a month before Brad was let go. Brad followed Wilma to her home country, Australia. I had vowed to myself to make some time in the year to visit them. I missed them; even more so with Tanya out of the picture. It was hard to imagine the year ahead of me without any of them.
“Friends will be secondary,” I said. “This year, I’m keeping to myself. I know the city like the back of my hand. I can speak the language enough to get by: take a taxi anywhere; order food in a restaurant; ask for simple directions; explain that I was not Americanmeegook sarahm, ani-nibda!” I emphasized the statement with a negative wave of the hand. “I hope to improve my comprehension. Maybe, I’ll take a language class. I think my university offers a class to the teachers.” In fact, the university administrators wanted me to enroll in a Masters program: Korean studies seemed like the only choice. But I honestly didn’t want to take the program. According to Jody, one of my few remaining friends left in Chŏnju, no Korean Masters degree was recognized in North America. I’d have no accreditation for it when I returned to Canada. So any courses that I would take would have to serve me there.
“Isn’t that what you said before you left a year ago?” teased Siobhan. “I know you, big brother.”
“Only brother,” I corrected her. And with the exception to our mother and Grandpa MacInnis, the only family she had left.
“You wanted to focus on the culture, learn about Korea. Not make any Western friends. Who were your closest friends?”
She had a point. My closest friends had been Brad, Tanya, and Wilma; later, Jamie and Jody. There were the regular ex-patriotsex-patsat the local bar, Urban. There were precious few Korean friends. Hoon, the owner of Urban Bar, who I never saw outside business hours. Mr. Lee, my hagwon student, who often took Tanya and me out on day trips to nearby temples and fortresses, and who would treat us to dinner. One night, he joined us, with Brad and Wilma, at Urban Bar, and he picked up the entire tab. He also helped Tanya and me move out of the hagwon apartment when everything fell apart. He was a valued student and a good friend.
But the Koreans that I considered to be friends weren’t the same as my Western friends. They weren’t as close to me. And sometimes, I felt as though our friendship was based on a service: I taught them English and in return they paid my way when we socialized. Right or wrong, it just seemed to be the way things worked.
“Face it, Roland: you’re a social creature. You need to be around people. You’ve always been that way. You’ll be that way again when you return to your little Korean town.”
“We’ll see,” I said, noticing my empty tumbler and shaking it in front of Bryan, who took his cue and reached for the nearly empty bottle. “We’ll see.”