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New Glory for Old

Tom Leary was one of those people who, when you realized that you were going to have to work with them for an indefinite period, made you all the gladder that you didn't have to live with them too. I can't recall ever forming a negative impression of someone more quickly. And it all hinged on one thing—his voice. First, it was simply too loud, as if he wanted to make sure all within earshot would hear his every word. Next was the voice's quality: Shrill and strident, it broadcast the message that its owner held a patent on all the important opinions. Third and worst, because it far outweighed the other two more forgivable tendencies, was the fact that neither I nor any of our equally astounded colleagues had ever been suffered to listen to such rapid-fire speech.

We were working as teachers of English as a second language at a foreign languages institute attached to one of the more prestigious, if also more radical, universities in Seoul. (Yes, yes, I can imagine anything you've heard about this "profession.") Our students—mostly university undergrads with a few graduate students mixed in—had already suffered through six years of English training: three years in middle school classes of sixty pupils, where the emphasis was on grounding them in the grammar. While that phrase nicely describes the result for the majority, those not entirely wrecked on the shoals of rules and exceptions endured another three years of vocabulary building in almost-as-crowded high school. With only twenty students each, the conversation classes we offered at top-won were tiny by comparison, and this favorable student-to-teacher ratio was one of our institute's selling points. We also employed as teachers only native speakers of English, an idea that appealed to students who wanted to learn how to talk American but who had been exposed only to a curious mixture of Korean and English known as "Konglish."

And then came Tom. Could that staccato stream-of-consciousness oralizing rightly be termed native speech? I wondered and worried, and my heart went out to his poor students as I passed their open classroom door on the first day of the course. I saw the shock written on the kids' faces. Some looked simply terrified. Others expressed the bitter frustration of having tried so hard for so long, operating under a certain set of expectations, and now this! Many just registered a blank, eyes beginning to glaze over. One casualty sat keeled forward, face down on the tabletop and arms hanging to the floor as if he had already given up the elusive white ghost of foreign language acquisition. Tom was in high gear, his unstoppable voice rolling on and on in an endless verborrheal flood.

The strange thing was, Tom's voice didn't fit his outward appearance. Hearing that inharmonious torrent, one imagined a speaker much older—late forties, perhaps—balding well, and with bluntly-striped tie roped in huge knot under double chin and aimed outward in offensive spearhead over self-righteous paunch. And one pictured glasses: dark plastic conservative rims with bottle-bottom lenses smudged with nose grease. But not so. Tom was fresh out of college (Georgetown, no less!) and seemed to have stepped from the pages of the L.L. Bean catalog. He was annoyingly handsome. A thick growth of naturally wavy golden hair crowned a nobly-sculpted, healthily tanned face, out of which shone welkin eyes and a smile that, in its brightness, eclipsed any other near it. A Middle Californian, Tom espoused liberal views (and this was back before it was politically correct to do so). He sang Beatles songs—the obscure ones—and knew all the words. He babbled philosophy, and his quotations always withstood checking. He had a nice word for everyone he met and made people laugh even when they didn't want to. And he liked physical contact: here an arm around the shoulder, there a pat on the back, plus a hug for the women instructors. He even managed once to get the Korean Student Coordinator, all-business Mr. Park, to high-five him. It was horrible.

Our amiable, overweight, and graying Associate Director cornered me near the coffee machine two weeks after Tom had come on board. John looked perplexed. "Mr. Park has come to me with queries from a dozen students, and that's the half that has decided to stick Tom's class out thus far. They want to know if this is really American English!"

I smiled inwardly with vengeful glee at the vision of a dozen students filing dejectedly out of Tom's classroom; but suddenly my mind's eye saw that the remaining dozen were all women! I strove against the probability that some Korean women would find it a not-unfavorable challenge to take English from an American who talked like Jerry Lewis but looked like Tom Cruise.

Trying to banish these disturbing thoughts, I tuned back into the Associate Director's musings.

"I really let this one slip by me; he talked like one of us in the interview. HowEVer, it IS a reMARKable exAMPLE of hyperfluidity in speech delivery. I MAY be able to conDUCT a STUdy. . . ." John lapsed into the psycholinguistic jargon, which, in published form, had made him famous in the world of second language teaching, but infamous among his staff.

 

Now, lest I give the impression that I may have somehow been jealous of Tom, let me hasten to counter that … well, all right, I suppose I was a bit envious of his looks. But to talk like that! The horror, the horror! I prided myself on my deliberate way of speaking. I was never one to bandy words or to stray into imprecision. I also tended to be more reserved than my fellow expats. They found me detached and, at times, aloof. But I would rather be seen as a kunja, Confucius's "superior man." Then, too, apart from whatever influence my retiring personality might have had on my behavior towards my countrymen abroad, there was the important fact (I frequently reminded myself) that I had come to Korea thinking to get to know the Koreans, to spend time with them and not with people whose national predilections were already familiar. I had many Korean acquaintances—perhaps, some of them, even admirers.

My favorite was Kyung Ok, a brighteyed, first-year grad student in the English literature program. Ah! the hours of intellectual bliss I enjoyed with her, rambling about the locust-tree-lined paths of Nogosan, the tiny "mountain" that sheltered our campus. A little way down from the low summit, which had been cleared and leveled out for the loud, silly parties and crazy games that the various student groups liked to have on the least occasion (and to be used as a defensive artillery emplacement in the event of an attack from the North), there was an outcropping of granite boulders. In the cozy nook formed by two of these, we talked British poetry of a summer afternoon, while giant, dark, swallow-tailed butterflies plied the hazy shadows of the "bee-loud glade" around and below us, cicadas whined and wooed from the hidden sides of leaves, and two raucous magpies argued over the proper way to repair their treetop nest -- a marvelous jumble of sticks. On my birthday that fall, Kyung Ok had presented me with an authentic edition of the complete poems of Yeats. In those days, that kind of book—i.e., not a pirated copy—would have been hard to find in Korea.

 

It was now my second spring in the Land of Morning Calm. The Lunar New Year had come and gone, with its happily drunken bonfires beneath the brimming moon, and I had realized I was no longer in love. Besides, it was a time to be on one's guard for other reasons.

In early April, the university's radical student element would inevitably host "Anti-America Week." There would be the usual preliminaries: inflammatory banners in blood-red paint on white fabric stretched across the black iron bars of the university's gates. There would be posters on every reachable wall, sporting such pleasantries as "Down With American Imperialists!", "U.S. Army Out of Korea!", and that old favorite, "Yankee Go Home!" And the noise. The loudspeakers that perched in harmless silence for much of the year atop light poles and building corners would crackle to hateful life, spilling the bloody rhetoric of the fervent and idealistic.

By midweek, the student rallies would be well underway. Every day, all day, a handful of students, brows tightly bound with crimson headbands, would stand on a makeshift scaffold in the soccer field and take turns leading the swelling crowd in an orgy of fist-punching, slogan-chanting, good old-fashioned rabble-rousing. By Thursday evening the offices of the university's English language newspaper, a platform for radical propaganda, would be transformed into an armory, stocked with buckets of throwable rocks and crates of Coke bottles filled with gasoline and stuffed with rag fuses, the classic Molotov cocktail. By Friday afternoon, say around three o'clock, whomever was currently the U.S. President would be burning in effigy at the head of a host of angry, frightened, thrilled, and confused undergraduates and their bloodthirsty senior leaders—some of whom were widely assumed to be infiltrators from the North—as they marched down to the battleground before the main gate of campus.

There the riot police would be waiting, arrayed in terrifying silence, visors of their Samurai helmets down, padded martial arts protective gear making them look larger and tougher than life, and hard fiberglass staves in hand (the better to beat your brains in with, my dear). The marksmen would have their triple-barrel tear gas launchers loaded and locked. When really big clashes were anticipated, an all-black armored personnel carrier would bring up the rear, roof-mounted Gatling gun ready to lob volleys of gas shells to blanket the enemy's territory. Most sinister of all, however, was the sharp-eyed fellow moving in and out among the attending troops. Outfitted like the rest of them, he wielded, instead of staff or gun, a special camera with high-powered telephoto lens. Thanks to his skill, attackers not winding up behind bars that evening could expect a midnight visit to their rooming houses.

I was prepared. I had seen it all before, having been caught in the middle of two demonstrations already. In one, I'd been forced with the panicked crowd back down into the subway station from which I'd just come, and, with chest liking to burst as I tried to hold my breath, I had run the fifty yards to the opposite exit. Almost there, my lungs had given out, and the next breath and each successive gasp had brought with it more tear gas. Tear gas, tear gas! Will I ever forget the smell, the terror of tear gas? It's not the tears that matter (although it burns the eyes like hell), it's when the hot pepper powder gets into your respiratory passages and rages there. An infant or an old person might easily be killed by the stuff. That time I thought I'd die too, but I made it out to the street, where I was able to find shelter in my local grocery store after beating on the locked door.

This year would be no different, except that recent events on the domestic scene had stirred the hornet's nest of radical students even more than usual. A freshman at one of the lesser universities on the outskirts of town, participating in a minor demonstration, had been hit in the eye by a rocketing tear gas grenade. The student had died in hospital the next day, and copies of his funeral portrait solemnized every street corner and bus stop. The innocent youth of the boy's face only intensified the sense of tragedy.

In advance, I tried to erect my own mental barricade to the events I knew would make the week unpleasant, but it was hard when you worked there, and lived nearby. I noticed that, true to form, Tom was taking things in stride. He rambled on at frequent intervals about how wonderful it was that the students were taking advantage of their "new found freedom of expression." My more cynical view had been strengthened against Tom's opinions ever since I'd witnessed him and Kyung Ok laughing together over milkshakes and fries at the new Burger King near the main gate.

It was to that greasy joint I had repaired at lunchtime Friday, hoping to eat away my worries in an environment that had at least a faint connection to home. But the fish sandwich only gave me indigestion. To make matters worse, who should I bump into on my way out but Tom on his way in.

"Stay and chat," he begged warmly, gleamingly. (Sometimes I almost felt he liked me.)

"Another time," I faked a smile. "Too much work to do."

Tom continued to gleam. "Well, watch out at the gate, buddy. Things are starting to heat up."

"I can handle it," I scoffed as coolly as I could to the neophyte, but it sounded forced even to me. To tell the truth, I was never one for confrontation.

Heading out to the open air, I found the street almost deserted. The traffic cops had stopped all vehicles from continuing past the university, and the sidewalk was quickly clearing of all but the most determined souls. I forged ahead. I had my evening class to teach, and, hopefully, Kyung Ok would be there.

Long before I approached the gate, I could hear the baleful wail of the loudspeakers. A coed was shrieking a war cry, and there was something at once pathetic and stirring in the way her voice cracked at the end of each phrase. "She'll have laryngitis before this is all over," I muttered, then laughed, but didn't hear my laugh. Laryngitis. That would be a good word to teach the class tonight.

The riot police were not yet on the scene, and I wondered, not without some perverse satisfaction, when they would arrive and start bashing heads. As I passed through the pedestrian archway by the open gate, something terrible caught my eye. There on the dirty pavement that led from the street through the entrance and into the campus, framed by the inward-swung iron gates, was a gigantic, hand painted cardboard replica of the Stars and Stripes. Not there when I had gone out earlier, the mock flag was freshly duct-taped down on the filthy cobblestones so that any vehicle entering or leaving the university by the main gate would have to drive over it, not to mention the thousands of shoes that had already begun to defile it.

I felt sick and paused to calm myself under a brutally-pruned cottonwood. Two sophomore girls sauntered arm-in-arm across the hapless banner, one pointing, the other on tiptoe when she stepped on the white stars. And there was a young student I vaguely knew, an otherwise intelligent-looking man. He glanced down as he began to traverse the tarnished symbol, only to look up and grin over at me. I thought, "So that is a sheepish grin." The white-gloved guard at the gatehouse merely looked askance. Enraged but feeling helpless to take action, I wheeled about and stalked off up the hill to the institute. Someone was laughing behind me.

 

The conversation activity lagged; my students knew I wasn't into it. (They'd learned ‘laryngitis' as high school freshmen.) Half-reading my thoughts as they often did, one young lady asked, "Are you concerned about the demo, Mr. Garvey?" Kyung Ok had not shown up for class—perhaps her bus hadn't gotten through. She could have chanced the subway, I thought impatiently. Calling for an early break, I retreated to the sanctuary of the lounge to brew an angry cup of coffee. After a scalding sip, I looked up to see Tom coming down the hall. I readied to ask him what he thought now about the students' "freedom of expression," sure that he had seen our national flag lying in the bitter dust.

But as he approached, I noticed that something was wrong with him, something different. His hair was wrongly tousled, his Hawaiian shirt was torn open with one button gone and another hanging by a distended purple thread. A spot of fresh blood held beneath one nostril, and he was breathing hard.

"What in the world happened to you?" I demanded.

For a moment, he gleamed his unsinkable smile.

"The flag," he let out and then clutched his side. "I tried to lift it up."

 

Copyright © 2001 Joseph M. Garvey